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Oregon Prison Officials Treat Heart Failure with Antacid, Tylenol, Heat Pack

In May 2007, Katherine Anderson was sentenced to 26 months in prison for embezzling $2,400 from her employer, a non-profit agency. She was sent to Oregon’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF). The 31-year-old mother of four was released 17 months later with a replacement heart valve, a shortened life span and no chance of having more children. According to her attorney, prison medical officials had ignored symptoms of an easily treatable illness called bacterial endocarditis.

Three months into her sentence, Anderson discovered a lump in her abdomen and began suffering from nausea and diarrhea. Within weeks she was having blurred vision, dizziness, cold chills, night sweats, extreme fatigue and shortness of breath. She experienced numbness in her face and legs, and her fingertips turned purple as she suffered from textbook symptoms of endocarditis and heart failure.

One nurse said she had nothing to worry about, another told her she had the flu, and a third nurse stated she was go-ing through menopause.

On October 27, 2007, Anderson had a fever, low blood sugar and a racing heart, according to her medical records. A nurse told her to eat something – she had an orange and a peanut butter sandwich – and to take a nap.

When Anderson’s symptoms persisted, she was sent to a hospital later that day. Emergency room doctors quickly di-agnosed strep enterococcus – microscopic bacteria were punching holes in her aortic valve, depriving her body of oxy-genated blood. Two other heart valves appeared to be damaged as well. After several blood transfusions and the first week of a six-week course of antibiotics, Anderson was returned to the prison infirmary.

Her symptoms quickly worsened and the tips of her fingers swelled – a telltale sign of chronic endocarditis. Medical staff repeatedly failed to determine that she had congestive heart failure.
Dr. Sanjiv Kaul, the head of cardiovascular medicine at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), was astounded that for weeks prison officials ignored clear signs that Anderson was dying of a treatable condition. “This poor woman had two valves diseased, both of them stressing her heart out, giving her heart failure,” Kaul said. “Any person with decent com-mon sense would have sent her for surgery. So I am just amazed to hear this story. I mean, this is pure ignorance.”

In early December 2007, prison medical staff finally requested a follow-up echocardiogram to see if the antibiotics were working. The Department of Corrections’ notorious Therapeutic Levels of Care committee denied the request. By mid-December, Anderson complained of chest pains and her heart was racing at 120 beats per minute.

She was referred to Dr. Elizabeth Sazie, CCCF’s Chief Medical Officer. Despite Anderson’s prior medical history, Sa-zie diagnosed her with heartburn and prescribed a stomach acid reducer plus Tylenol and a heat pack for her chest. Not satisfied with this non-treatment, Anderson began seeking an attorney to help her get the medical care she needed.

When Anderson’s family visited her on Christmas Day in 2007, she tried to hide the extent of her medical problems from her children. By the end of the visit, however, she cried as she hugged them, fearing she might never see them again.

That night, Anderson pleaded with a nurse to send her to a hospital. “Please. I’m dying,” she recalls saying. Instead she was taken to the prison infirmary, where she convinced two other nurses to send her to the emergency room.

There, an X-ray revealed that her heart was enlarged and her lungs were full of fluid. Anderson had been in conges-tive heart failure for weeks; she underwent emergency surgery four days later. Surgeons repaired her aortic valve with a Teflon replacement, put a band on her tricuspid valve, sewed up holes in her mitral valve and removed scab-like material from her damaged heart.

“When I got back to the infirmary, I found out the two nurses who sent me to the hospital were reprimanded and the doctor who wouldn’t listen to me is an employee of the month,” Anderson wrote. Nurses joked that she had broken CCCF’s medical budget, as the prison had spent almost $130,000 for her emergency care. Anderson’s suffering was completely unnecessary and could have been avoided with about $100 of antibiotics had her condition been correctly identified and treated, according to Dr. Kaul.

Anderson must now take blood thinners for the rest of her shortened life; as a result, she cannot have any more chil-dren. She has sued the Oregon Dept. of Corrections for deliberate indifference and medical malpractice, and is seeking $2.5 million in damages. Anderson is represented by Portland attorney Michelle Burrows. See: Anderson v. Sazie, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:09-cv-00774-ST.

Source: The Oregonian

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Related legal case

Anderson v. Sazie