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Ex-inmate sues, says medical care withheld

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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Kristine Kellum says she was so sick she couldn’t get herself out of bed, even to make it to her cell door for “sick call.”

But that wasn’t enough to convince jail officers at the Metropolitan Detention Center that she needed prompt medical help, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed against Bernalillo County, which operates the jail, and Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., which provides medical services at the massive lockup.

The jailers repeatedly ignored complaints from Kellum and her cellmates, although she was suffering chest pain and breathing problems as her condition deteriorated, the suit says.

Kellum was in jail after pleading guilty to a drug charge. She spent about a week there in fall 2012 before ending up in the hospital.

Bernalillo County and Correctional Healthcare Companies deny the allegations.

Kellum alleges she wasn’t treated properly even after she made it the infirmary, though she was eventually transferred to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where doctors performed open-heart surgery, her lawsuit says. She had endocarditis, or inflammation within her heart.

Kellum alleges it took four or five days before she received any medical help, and it was a couple of days more before she was sent to UNMH.

“Kristine Kellum experienced substantial and debilitating pain for several days while confined at the Bernalillo County MDC, during which time she was not provided adequate medical treatment despite multiple requests from her and other inmates for medical care and despite the obvious need for her to be provided with appropriate medical treatment,” her lawsuit says.

The defendants say no one interfered with Kellum’s access to health care and that the treatment she received was appropriate, given her symptoms, which mimicked less-severe conditions like the flu. She was properly screened when booked into jail and didn’t appear seriously ill, the county said.

And once it became clear Kellum had a more serious problem, the defendants arranged for her to get care at UNMH, they said.

The events described in Kellum’s suit occurred in October 2012, and her attorney, Charles Lakins, filed suit earlier this year. A jury trial is set for next summer.

Her complaint alleges civil-rights violations, medical malpractice and negligent hiring, training and supervision of employees. She alleges the county has a policy or custom of failing to ensure inmates get proper medical treatment at its overcrowded jail.

“Kristine Kellum’s initial – and then worsening – medical condition was sufficiently serious such that even a layman (e.g. five fellow inmates) was able to recognize the need for her to receive necessary and proper medical treatment,” the lawsuit says.

She may face more surgery, her suit says, that might have been avoided had her endocarditis been treated earlier.

In its response, the county says none of its employees violated Kellum’s rights and the county’s alleged actions didn’t cause any damage or injury to her.

Furthermore, health care was available to her at all times, and the care she received from Correctional Healthcare Companies was appropriate, the county said.

Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc. said Kellum’s illness came on quickly. Staffers initially tried to treat her for fever and dehydration, a reasonable strategy given her symptoms, CHC said in court documents.

Correctional Healthcare said even if what’s stated in the complaint is true, none of the company’s actions were the cause of damage or injury to Kellum. Also, if Kellum suffered injury, she shares some of the blame, the response states.

Finally, any alleged injuries to Kellum couldn’t have been reasonably foreseen by Correctional Healthcare, so she can’t recover damages, the company argues.

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