Keeping 'em in Stitches

Crohn's disease sufferer Damon Dreckmeier was sentenced to 111 days in the county jail. Denied a few dollars' worth of daily prescription medication, he was rushed to the hospital five times, undergoing two surgeries. Taxpayers will pay for his treatment,

Dreckmeier worries that he'll never be as healthy as he was before he went to jail in February. He complains of several symptoms he's never had before. Stomach acids repeatedly find their way to his mouth, causing him to spit throughout the day. He still isn't eating much, and trips to the bathroom remain an unpleasant adventure.

But none of it--the five hospitalizations, the surgery, the abscess, the nearly lethal loss of blood--would have occurred, Dreckmeier says, if jail nurses had simply given him eight pills each day.

Four years ago, Dreckmeier learned that he suffers from Crohn's disease, a chronic digestive condition. Its cause is unknown, but Crohn's most often strikes people in their teens and 20s and is most common in Western Europe, Scandinavia and North America.

It can attack any part of the digestive system, from the mouth to rectum, but most often it eats away at the intestines. When the disease is acute, it causes severe cramping, bloody diarrhea and anemia. Eventually, sections of bowel made useless by the disease must be removed by surgery. Advanced imaging techniques enable doctors to target what portion of intestine needs removal, and can normally do so with minimal scarring. Dreckmeier had himself already endured an operation to remove part of his bowel and reconnect the healthy tissue.

Over a lifetime, a Crohn's victim may lose section after section of the 20 feet of small intestines that a person is born with. Fortunately, with as little as five feet of intestine left over, a person with Crohn's may still be able to lead a relatively normal life.

Many people with Crohn's must eventually learn to live with a stoma, what a writer suffering from the disease described as looking like a cherry tomato stuck on one's stomach, where healthy intestine is brought through the skin to allow waste materials to collect in a plastic bag.

Others are more lucky. For many sufferers, a closely followed regimen of medication can keep Crohn's from its active stage, staving off the disease's worst effects for years.

Until February, that described Damon Dreckmeier.
In 1989, he had moved to Arizona from Iowa, and after attending Arizona State University and a trade school, landed a job as the warehouse manager of a ceramics store.

He was shocked to learn in 1993 that he would live with Crohn's for the rest of his life, he says, but he soon learned to adapt. As long as he took a drug called mesalamine four times a day and didn't drink alcohol, he could eat what he wanted and felt few effects of the disease.

Besides, Crohn's was nothing compared to the problems he was having with girlfriends.

Dreckmeier had had a child with a woman he met in California in 1992. They had split up and had no formal agreement about the child's status, but Dreckmeier sent money--regularly, he says--and intended eventually to get a formal agreement on custody rights.

In 1995, he met another woman, Melanie Shadowens, who became pregnant with his second child late last year. Sharing expenses with his girlfriend and sending money to his ex, Dreckmeier says he became stuck. He was broke, and it made him desperate.

So he committed a crime.
Dreckmeier borrowed a friend's birth certificate and used it illegally to obtain a driver's license. (His own had been suspended when he failed to pay a speeding ticket.) Then, he stole a check--already mechanically signed--from his girlfriend's place of work, wrote the check in the amount of $4,800 to his fake identity and used the bogus driver's license to cash it.

The crime temporarily solved his money problems, and for months it went unnoticed.

Then on January 28, the FBI took Dreckmeier into custody and charged him with the check fraud. Shadowens bonded him out of jail that night.

FBI agents rearrested Dreckmeier on February 3, charging him with forging the driver's license. This time, he remained in jail. The check charge was dropped with his promise to repay the $4,800, and he pleaded guilty on March 28 to a class 4 felony for forging the fake ID.

On April 18, he was sentenced to four years' probation with 111 days of incarceration.

When FBI agents took Dreckmeier to jail on February 3, they allowed Shadowens to retrieve the prescription bottle for Dreckmeier's mesalamine. The agents told Shadowens to empty it out--no drugs can be brought into jail--and they promised to deliver the bottle to the jail's medical staff as evidence that he had the prescription.

The FBI agents followed through on that promise. Dreckmeier watched them hand the bottle to jail staffers at the intake unit.

He was assured that jail medical staff would get the prescription filled and continue Dreckmeier's schedule of pills.

They didn't.

Damon Dreckmeier entered Madison Street Jail on a Monday. He got no more mesalamine that day.

He didn't get any of his daily dosage of eight on Tuesday, either.
None was brought to him on Wednesday.
He also didn't get any on Thursday.

Instead, that day, February 6, guards came to haul Dreckmeier to a court hearing. When they arrived, Dreckmeier was doubled over in pain. His cellmates told the guards that Dreckmeier had been vomiting yellow fluids all day. Dreckmeier says he sat on the floor in excruciating pain, begging the guards to take him to a doctor.

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