MUSKOGEE — Becoming paralyzed limb by limb, an injured 54-year-old man received help drinking and eating from fellow Muskogee County jail inmates as detention staff and medical personnel “did nothing” but watch him “deteriorate,” according to a federal lawsuit.
After his booking evaluation with a nurse, James Buchanan allegedly didn’t see a medical professional until 11 days later. Buchanan lost the ability to move his left arm on his first day behind bars, eventually becoming completely paralyzed in his arms and legs by Day 10, the lawsuit stated.
A car struck his bicycle, hospitalizing him with broken ribs, a collapsed lung and neck problems seven weeks before he was incarcerated. Five weeks after the wreck, he “absconded” from a preliminary hearing on a larceny charge of stealing a suitcase from a motel parking lot, prompting his arrest for failure to appear.
Now 56, the Muskogee man is permanently paralyzed and wheelchair-bound in need of “assistance with everyday life activities,” according to the civil rights lawsuit. The 19-page document was filed Thursday in Muskogee federal court, with the alleged events taking place from Nov. 3-14, 2016.
He allegedly wasn’t transferred to a hospital until he was lying in his own urine, unable to control his bodily functions. He was diagnosed with quadriplegia and a cervical epidural abscess, which is “essentially a collection of pus (infected material) and germs between the outer covering of the brain and spinal cord and the bones of the spine or neck.”
The surgeon who performed “multiple invasive” operations on Buchanan noted that Buchanan obviously “likely developed the beginnings of cervical epidural abscess infection” because of his critical illness and hospitalization after the wreck.
“… while in jail, he deteriorated significantly and his clinical deterioration went unrecognized and untreated until he was nearly completely quadriplegic,” the surgeon wrote, according to the lawsuit.
The defendants are Turn Key Health Clinics, Muskogee County Sheriff Rob Frazier in his official capacity, the board of county commissioners, a Turn Key doctor in his individual capacity and a nurse in her individual capacity.
The suit was filed by Tulsa attorney Dan Smolen. The lawsuit seeks more than $75,000 in actual and punitive damages, citing cruel and unusual punishment and negligence as causes of action.
Smolen on Friday said Buchanan was released from hospitalization after a “very lengthy stay” and isn’t back in jail.
Turn Key is an Oklahoma City-based private medical provider for jails in Oklahoma (27 counties), Arkansas (seven counties) and Kansas (one county). The company has provided medical services for the Tulsa County jail since December 2016.
The Tulsa World reached out Friday to Turn Key for comment, but a representative didn’t return a message left with a person who answered the company’s phone.
The Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement Friday that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
“However, Sheriff (Rob) Frazier and the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office take the safety and security of all inmates seriously,” Lt. Nick Mahoney said.
During the booking process, Buchanan reportedly told a nurse of his substantial injuries and that he was taking pain medication. The lawsuit contends the nurse observed he “was having increased discomfort with movement.”
Despite worsening paralysis that ultimately spread to both arms and legs, the lawsuit said jail staff and medical personnel “did nothing” as he “deteriorated before (their) eyes.”
For several days, inmates began assisting him “with his everyday life needs (such as feeding and hydration) … ” as he “laid in his cell” in “extreme and worsening pain,” the lawsuit states.
Buchanan allegedly received “no medical attention whatsoever” for 10 days.
He lost all movement in his lower extremities on the 10th day, with medical professionals not seeing him until the next day. The nurse named in the lawsuit examined him and then called for the doctor (also a named defendant), who put him on a “provider list for the upcoming week … ,” according to the lawsuit.
An unspecified nurse revisited Buchanan nine hours later.
“Mr. Buchanan was still unable to walk and his pain level had increased to ‘10’ on a scale from one to ten,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Buchanan had lost control of his bodily functions and was lying in his own urine.
“Only now did (the doctor) decide to send Mr. Buchanan to the hospital. But it was too late.”
The lawsuit argues the Sheriff’s Office “utterly failed” to train its detention staff on how to properly care for and supervise inmates with “complex or serious medical needs.”
But the document focuses in particular on Turn Key, alleging the medical provider understaffs jails with undertrained or underqualifed medical personnel who are “ill-equipped to evaluate, assess, supervise, monitor or treat inmates … with complex and serious medical needs.”
The lawsuit contends Turn Key has “no protocol or clear policy” to monitor those types of inmates.
“Turn Key’s inadequate or non-existent policies and customs were a moving force behind the constitutional violations and injuries alleged herein,” the lawsuit states.
The suit also briefs four other instances in 2016 in county jails in which Turn Key’s medical care allegedly resulted in deaths or negative medical outcomes.
One alleged episode in the summer of 2016 in the Muskogee County jail has similar themes to what purportedly happened to Buchanan.
“(Michael) Smith claims that cancer spread to his spine, causing a dangerous spinal compression, a condition that can cause permanent paralysis if left untreated,” according to Buchanan’s lawsuit. “Smith asserts he told the Turn Key-employed physician at the Jail that he was paralyzed, but the physician laughed at Smith and told him he was faking.
“For a week before he was able to bond out of Jail, Smith was kept in an isolation cell on his back, paralyzed, unable to walk, bathe himself or use the bathroom on his own. He lay in his own urine and feces because Jail staff told Smith he was faking paralysis and refused to help him.”