July 1, 2008 — The shocking June death and shameful neglect of a 49-year-old Brooklyn woman in the borough’s public hospital psychiatric emergency room had advocates who filed a major civil rights lawsuit against the hospital last year back in court today demanding immediate, urgent reform. Disturbing security videos show employees ignoring the woman’s convulsing body, walking past her as she lay face down and dying for more than an hour. Further, hospital medical records misrepresent her condition in a way that suggests they have been altered or not maintained with the integrity the law requires.
The shocking June death and shameful neglect of a 49-year-old Brooklyn woman in the borough’s public hospital psychiatric emergency room had advocates who filed a major civil rights lawsuit against the hospital last year back in court today demanding immediate, urgent reform. Disturbing security videos show employees ignoring the woman’s convulsing body, walking past her as she lay face down and dying for more than an hour. Further, hospital medical records misrepresent her condition in a way that suggests they have been altered or not maintained with the integrity the law requires.
Nicknamed “Killer County” by those familiar with its conditions, Kings County Hospital Center is the subject of a lawsuit filed in May 2007 by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Mental Hygiene Legal Service, and Kirkland & Ellis LLP. The lawsuit describes the hospital’s psychiatric emergency room and inpatient unit as “a chamber of filth, decay, indifference and danger,” and seeks an end to abusive treatment in the hospital’s psychiatric facilities where patients are regularly ignored and those that dare advocate for themselves are punished with forcible injections of psychotropic drugs.
The patient at 6:20 a.m. - the same time as hospital records indicate she was “sitting quietly in waiting room.”
“What’s happening in Kings County Hospital is an affront to human dignity,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “In 2008 in New York City, nobody should be subjected to this kind of treatment. It should not take the death of a patient to get the city to make changes that everyone knows are long overdue.”
The U.S. Department of Justice has recently initiated an investigation and since then some of the hospital’s physical problems have improved. But the culture of abuse and neglect remains and, as evidenced by the June death, the situation is too dire to wait for the Justice Department to act.
“Immediate reform is needed now to protect the health and wellbeing of vulnerable Brooklyn residents who must rely on the hospital for care,” said Dennis Feld, the deputy director of special litigation and appeals with Mental Hygiene Legal Service.
One of multiple Kings County Hospital staff who saw the patient but did nothing to help her (security guard in bottom right).
Kings County Hospital is the only option for many in the overwhelmingly black, low-income neighborhoods that surround it, including Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Canarsie, Crown Heights, East New York and Flatbush. But for those desperate enough to go to the hospital’s psychiatric emergency room – the notorious G Building – too often there is little help to be found. An investigation by advocates in the lead up to the lawsuit found overcrowded, dangerously unsanitary conditions where patients – including children and the physically disabled – may be ignored and abused.
In this case, the 49-year-old woman had been in the emergency room for nearly 24 hours waiting for treatment. Videos document that at 5:32 a.m. on June 19 – more than a full day after she arrived for urgent care – the woman rolled off of a waiting-room chair and fell face down on the floor. She writhed on the floor until she stopped moving at 6:07 a.m., during which time multiple hospital staff saw her and ignored her. At 6:35 a.m. a hospital employee approaches and nudges the body with her foot. Not until 6:38 a.m. – more than an hour after the patient collapsed, and a half-hour after she last moved – did staff members bring a crash cart and oxygen tank into the area.
Contrary to what was recorded from four different angles by the hospital’s video cameras, the patient’s medical records say that at 6 a.m. she got up and went to the bathroom and at 6:20 a.m. she was “sitting quietly in waiting room” – more than 10 minutes since she last moved and 48 minutes after she fell to the floor.
The day after her death, the hospital put out a press release calling the woman’s death counter to the “basic principles of the compassionate health care practiced every day here at Kings County.” Similarly, after the lawsuit was filed in 2007, a statement from the hospital called the complaint “lurid” and an “affront” to the “dedicated and caring staff” at Kings County.
“The conditions and abject quality of care at the psychiatric center at Kings County are the true affronts,” said Rob Cohen, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “They are affronts to decency. They are affronts to a fundamental respect for the health and well-being of not only this woman, but all of the other New Yorkers who are unfortunate enough to be confined in the prison that is the Kings County Hospital psychiatric unit.”
After more than a year of litigation and the death of the Brooklyn woman, New York City finally agreed in court today to a series of reforms at the hospital, including that every patient be checked every 15 minutes, that there be no more than 25 patients at any time in the psychiatric emergency ward, that detailed records on the ward be turned over every week to the advocates involved in the lawsuit, and that the advocates be active participants in the search for a new deputy executive director and emergency room director for Kings County Hospital’s Behavioral Health department.
“The court order provides some modicum of progress that will hopefully ensure that this kind of tragedy will never happen again,” said Beth Haroules, the NYCLU’s lead counsel on the case. “There is, however, much more work that must be done before the psychiatric unit at Kings County will ever begin to approach a true place of compassionate, professional and responsible care.”
Defendants have agreed to arrange to have the woman’s remains transported to her nation of origin.