Jackson County jail inmate ReGina R. Thurman displayed classic symptoms of someone whose main blood vessel, the aorta, was about to burst.
The 53-year-old Kansas City-area woman complained of burning chest pains and backache, and her left leg had gone numb. Anyone with those symptoms should have been transported immediately to a hospital emergency room, two cardiologists told The Star.
Yet records show that the only medical care Thurman received at the Jackson County Detention Center during the hour that passed between first seeing a nurse about her chest pain and slumping to the floor lifeless were two antacid tablets and a bit of advice.
“Breathe and relax,” a nurse said as she searched for Thurman’s pulse and found none.
“It’s sad,” Thurman’s brother Brian Chavez said after reading the sheriff’s department investigative report obtained by The Star, which details the events before and after his sister was pronounced dead at 2:11 a.m. Jan. 20. “Somebody has to be accountable because, man, it was just terrible, the whole thing from start to finish.”
According to the separate autopsy report, also obtained by The Star through an open records request, Thurman’s cause of death was “aortic dissection,” of which “hypertensive cardiovascular disease was a contributing factor.” The manner of death: “natural.”
But Chavez and one of Thurman’s daughters say the center’s contracted medical staff was negligent for not getting Thurman to the hospital, where her life might have been saved. (Chavez works in The Kansas City Star’s engineering department.)
The Mayo Clinic and other experts say tears in an artery’s walls, known as dissection, almost always result in a fatal rupture if not treated with drugs or surgery. Indeed, 20 percent of patients with aortic dissection die on their way to the hospital, according to the Merck Manual, the world’s best-selling medical textbook.
The two nurses who saw Thurman and the doctor who one of them consulted with the night of her death could not have diagnosed the condition without an X-ray or a CT scan. But they should have recognized the seriousness of Thurman’s symptoms and gotten her to the emergency room for tests, two Kansas City heart surgeons with no direct connection to the case told The Star based on the events described in the 11-page sheriff’s report.
“No question they should have sent her to the ER with that background,” cardiologist Alan Forker said, referring to Thurman’s hypertension. Forker, who recently retired after long stints at Truman Medical Center and St. Luke’s Hospital and was a professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, added, “Clearly, that was not the way to handle her.”
Thurman’s relatives, who are considering a lawsuit, say the incident speaks to the dysfunction of a facility that has been the subject of multiple investigations the past two years. Those investigations include an FBI probe into allegations of physical abuse of prisoners by guards, and a former U.S. district attorney’s investigation on behalf of the county into lax security that allowed inmates to commit sexual assaults on other prisoners without detection.