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California Prison Doctor Suspended Following Three Prisoner Deaths

by Marvin Mentor

A San Quentin State Prison physician, Dr. Garen Vong, whose alleged negligence contributed to the deaths of three prisoner patients since 2002, was suspended with pay ($11,381 per month) on February 3, 2005 pending investigation. The three preventable" prisoner deaths were part of the incompetence and outright depravity in the rendering of medical care" characterized by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in the court's formalized order of October 3, 2005 naming a trustee to take over the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's (CDCR) health care program.

San Quentin prisoner Bobby Lee Duren, 48, went to sick call on February 3, 2005 where he was diagnosed with bronchitis. He was prescribed cough syrup, Tylenol, Benadryl and antibiotics. While returning to his cell, he collapsed. Thirty hours later he was taken out to Marin General Hospital's emergency room exhibiting high fever, low blood pressure, a high pulse, and a fast respiratory rate. This was a very serious medical problem" that could have been diagnosed by a fourth-year medical student, according to testimony last June by Dr. Joe Goldenson, San Francisco's jail health services director, appearing at Judge Henderson's request. Duren died shortly thereafter when he experienced massive lung bleeding and his heart stopped three times. Goldenson added that if Duren had received proper medical care at San Quentin, he would not have died, calling Dr. Vong's response another example of bad medical care [from] a physician [known to be] dangerous and responsible for patients dying who was still practicing.
Dr. Vong, originally only referred to in reports as a Dr. X," admitted treating Duren but claimed he did nothing wrong, adding, I don't think I should be held responsible." A 1978 graduate of the University of Saigon Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Vong had been employed by CDCR for three years. He stated he believed he had been cleared of wrong doing in the other two deaths.

In one, a deaf mute prisoner fell from his bunk at 3:45 a.m. on July 5, 2003 and hit his head. The 58 year-old was bleeding and his blood pressure had dropped to a dangerous level. In a telephone order, Dr. Vong ordered him admitted to the San Quentin medical care unit but did not order further testing. The following morning, when he was supposed to be taken to an outside hospital, he was instead sent back to his cell. Later checking on his vital signs, a nurse found him dead.

And on May 27, 2002, Dr. Vong saw a 42 year-old prisoner who appeared confused and disoriented, suffering dementia." Dr. Vong declared it a psychiatric problem," but a psychiatrist refused to admit the prisoner to the mental health care unit, saying he needs to be medically cleared." Goldenson told Judge Henderson that the prisoner ended up dying of an overwhelming infection," adding, again, this doctor didn't pick up on the clues, didn't manage it correctly, and the patient died.

Duren's mother, a nurse, has begun legal proceedings against CDCR, alleging deliberate indifference to Duren's serious medical needs. She wants to make sure Dr. Vong never sees another patient and seeks revocation of his license. I wouldn't want him to deliver a cow," she said. Her family's claim was rejected by State officials on September 15, 2005, who declared that it raised complex legal issues that should be resolved by formal legal action." The family's attorney has notified Dr. Vong and CDCR that he will oblige them accordingly.

Duren was finishing a nine year term for assault, anticipating parole in April, 2006.

Source: San Jose Mercury News.

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