Dangers of Detox: Expert Finds Inadequate Care at MDC

This 2019 photo shows inmates sleeping on beds on the floor in the Metropolitan Detention Center’s drug rehabilitation unit. Inmates here are supposed to be monitored due to the risks of drug or alcohol withdrawal. (Roberto E. Rosales/Diary)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

In the days following Sao Chau’s incarceration at the Metropolitan Detention Center, he reported feeling unwell, short of breath and tingling in his hands, according to incident reports published in the Journal.

The 41-year-old man who came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam in the 1990s was being held in the drug or alcohol withdrawal unit because he told the prison staff that he had used fentanyl prior to his August 28 arrest. 24.

It was there that over the course of 57 hours he vomited again and again – with some reporting that they ‘thought he had thrown away at least his body weight’, said Kate Loewe, a lawyer representing those incarcerated in the prison. the McClendon Settlement Agreement which spells out the reforms. in jail.

A little after midnight on August 27, a rehab nurse examined him and said that if he “continued to vomit and feel sick, a doctor should be contacted,” according to reports.

More than 4 1/2 hours later, he called for help again and said he couldn’t move.

Medical staff told officers to bring him to their unit and another inmate helped pick him up and put him on a wheelchair. Along the way, he lost consciousness, became inert and began to slide on the ground.

He died shortly afterwards. An autopsy report detailing his cause of death was not immediately available.

“He had been really, really sick,” Loewe said. “Withdrawal is a life-threatening event and should be taken very seriously medically… How come someone is so ill that they cannot get up and out of bed and the care doctors do not come to him? How is it that the medical does not respond to an emergency? »

damning report

A recently released report by an expert assigned to assess the prison’s medical care for the McClendon settlement deal suggests Chau’s treatment is not unusual for the facility.

Expert Muthusamy Anandkumar was at the MDC to assess his medical care, interview staff, review reports and medical records at the same time Chau was there. Chau died two days after the expert left.

Sao Chau, 41, in the Rio Rancho nail salon his family ran. Chau died in county jail custody in August. (Courtesy of Rick Sandoval)

In the report, Anandkumar found that the medical team did not comply with screening and appropriate management of inmates’ withdrawal symptoms.

He said the number of detox assessments performed by each nurse is very high, impacting quality and increasing risk to inmates. No electrolyte powder or water was available for inmates on withdrawal, who have a higher risk of becoming dehydrated.

Additionally, he said the process for sick inmates to get the medical care they need is “unreliable” and “inadequate.”

“Several sick call requests were reviewed, and the level of acuity was not appropriate for the complaints,” Anandkumar wrote. “There is also a delay in responding to medical requests. The nursing reports are not detailed. When inmates are being treated, nurses do not routinely reassess inmates when indicated. »

Chau was the 17th person to die in custody at the prison since the start of 2020, according to records kept by the Journal. Several of those people — including Chau — were retiring from drugs or alcohol at the time, others committed suicide or died of medical conditions.

In response to requests for comment on Chau’s case, prison medical provider YesCare – formerly known as Corizon Health – said it was forbidden to speak publicly about patients’ health.

“We take the care of all patients very seriously and any patient death is a tragedy,” CEO Sara Tirschwell said in a written statement.

She said the company is deeply committed to the physical and mental health of its patients and is proud of its “long-standing, national reputation for delivering exceptional healthcare services, which require perseverance, investment in our health systems, a commitment to quality improvement and dedicated trained professionals. .”

“Since taking over as medical provider in Bernalillo, YesCare has eliminated hundreds of chronic care backlogs and implemented new systems and protocols to improve patient care,” Tirschwell said. “We are confident that our proven techniques and action plan will successfully meet all patient needs, from admission to reintegration.”

Worse and worse

Complaints, whistleblowers and lawsuits regarding MDC medical care have been recurring themes for years. Correctional officers have raised their own concerns about prison conditions and in the past six months their vacancy rate has exceeded 50%.

In early 2021, shortly after the Journal published an article detailing the deaths of nine people in custody over the previous year, his medical provider announced his intention to terminate his contract more than a year early.

In September 2021, Bernalillo County commissioners approved a new four-year, $64.9 million contract for medical services – this time with Corizon Health.

Although commissioners said at the time that the new deal would increase staff numbers, in the months that followed medical staff reported that care had deteriorated significantly and several key positions went unfilled. A nurse who had worked at the prison for 11 years filed a statement in federal court saying “what is happening now is the worst medical care that has ever been”.

In late December, lawyers representing plaintiffs in the McClendon lawsuit filed a motion seeking a hearing after the previous medical expert – who has since retired – concluded that care was “substantially deficient”, described “systemic deficiencies and said that “these issues were apparent. in several deaths.

This photo from 2019 shows the rehab unit where inmates are held at the Metropolitan Detention Center while they recuperate from drugs or alcohol. Sao Chau was in a rehab unit retiring from fentanyl when he became very ill and died. (Roberto E. Rosales/Diary)

Loewe said the plaintiffs have negotiated with the county and are close to finalizing a settlement agreement that they hope will resolve “the current medical care crisis.”

In his August report, Anandkumar – the new medical expert – found much the same as his predecessor, including that there is “a backlog of care and inadequate care for sick prisoners”.

“He went into a lot of detail about some of the issues that were there: that there’s no chronic care program, that there are medication continuity issues, that there aren’t enough staff,” Loewe said. “It’s their job to provide medical care. I don’t understand why some of these issues are even a problem.

In response to questions about the findings of the medical report, Tirschwell said that since taking over medical care at MDC, YesCare has simplified reporting methods and logs, created checklists for medical personnel, and provided training. additional.

“Addictions doctor Sylvie Stacy visited the site regularly to provide supervision and additional training for staff,” she said. “YesCare is also working daily with the county’s on-site contract compliance monitor to foster a more integrated communication approach. His cooperation with our team has resulted in more successful coordination between YesCare and the county.

“Let to Die on the Ground”

Chau grew up in Vietnam and came to the United States legally with his family as a 12-year-old refugee.

“He was loved by his nieces,” said attorney Rick Sandoval, who represents Chau’s brother, Ty Chau. “His family also intended to buy a utility vehicle – a truck – and bring it into a separate line of business, a trucking business with his brother. They are hard working people who came to this country as refugees.

But, Sandoval said, Sao Chau also suffered from addiction. He was attempting to seek treatment when he ended up in jail on warrant for failing to appear in court in two cases – one from April 2022 charging him with possession of a controlled substance, receiving or of transferring a stolen motor vehicle and shoplifting, and another from 2020 charging him with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“Ty Chau was very close to his brother,” Sandoval said. “They were going to go into business together…and then he didn’t hear from him for a while…we’re talking about a few weeks, and then he got a call from prison saying his brother had died.”

Sandoval has requested records in the case and expects to file a wrongful death lawsuit soon.

“Even with the limited information we have, this is a photo of someone who was left to die on the floor of this rehab wing, vomiting and in so much pain that he couldn’t even walk…” said Sandoval. “You can’t have so many problems in the same establishment without the administrators and elected officials knowing about it and doing something about it. I don’t know how many deaths it will take them to fix the problem. »

County asks prison medical provider to resolve care issues

Bernalillo County has questions about YesCare’s quality of care…

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