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Oregon Settles Prisoner’s Heart Failure Medical Mistreatment Case for $390,000

“This poor woman had two valves diseased, both of them stressing her heart out, giving her heart failure,” said Dr. Sanjiv Kaul, head of cardiovascular medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), speaking of Katherine Anderson, a 31-year-old Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) prisoner. “Any person with decent common sense would have sent her for surgery. So I am just amazed to hear this story. I mean, this is pure ignorance.”

Anderson began having serious problems in August 2007 but ODOC medical staff dismissed her symptoms as “nothing to worry about,” the flu and menopause. [See: PLN, June 2010, p.32].

When she returned with worsening symptoms in October 2007, a nurse told her to eat a peanut butter sandwich and orange and take a nap.

Anderson’s symptoms grew so bad that she was taken to an emergency room later that day, where doctors quickly diagnosed strep enterococcus – microscopic bacteria – which were punching holes in her aortic valve, depriving her body of oxygenated blood. Two other valves also appeared to be damaged.

Anderson received two blood transfusions and was hospitalized one week before returning to the prison infirmary. Back at the prison her symptoms quickly worsened once again. Medical staff repeatedly failed to recognize the telltale signs of chronic endocarditis and obvious congestive heart failure.

In early December 2007, medical staff refused a follow-up echocardiogram to see if the antibiotics were working. By mid-December, Anderson complained of chest pain and her heart was racing at 120 beats per minute. The prison’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Elizabeth Sanzie, diagnosed her with heartburn.

On Christmas Day, Anderson was certain she would die. Fortunately, she found a nurse willing to risk sending her to the emergency room, where an X-ray revealed that her heart was enlarged and her lungs were full of fluid. She had been in congestive heart failure for weeks.

Four days later, Anderson underwent emergency heart surgery. Her aortic valve was replaced with a Teflon valve and surgeons 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,” wrote Anderson.

Nurses joked that Anderson had broken the prison’s medical budget, as the prison had spent almost $130,000 for her emergency care. Yet, her suffering was completely unnecessary and could have been avoided with about $100 of antibiotics had her condition been properly diagnosed and treated, according to Dr. Kaul.

Anderson must now take blood thinners for the rest of her shortened life and she can’t have any more children.

In July 2009, Anderson filed a federal suit against prison officials, seeking $2.5 million in damages. Almost two years later, on April 13, 2011, prison officials agreed to settle the case by paying $390,000, including attorney fees and costs, according to Anderson’s attorney, Michelle R. Burrows.

“We’re all pleased at the settlement,” said Burrows. “This is one of the largest payouts by the state in a prison medical case.”

Even so, said Burrows, the money that the 33-year-old Anderson received will barely cover the minimum expenses for the medical care she is expected to need for the rest of her life. 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