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,

The next thing he remembers: waking up and seeing a red, oozing scar that stretched from his sternum to his pubic bone. It looked like Dreckmeier had been cleaned like a fish.

"They had done radical exploratory surgery on me. And I was asking the doctors, 'Why?' Just the week before, they had tested me extensively, and they knew what was wrong with me. I had active Crohn's because I wasn't getting my medication. But they cut me up like they didn't know what was wrong with me.

"What happened to me? Why did you cut me so far?" Dreckmeier says he asked surgeons who came to check on his condition. "You're in jail, we don't have to discuss it with you," one of the doctors told him, Dreckmeier says.

A doctor at Maricopa Medical Center who asked not to be named confirms that physicians are instructed not to inform inmates of the procedures performed on them--which is diametrically opposed to how doctors are trained in medical school.

When Dr. Jerome Targovnik was head of endocrinology at Maricopa Medical Center 10 years ago, he says that wasn't the case. "We treated inmates the same as we did other patients." He says it surprises him that inmates would not be told about their conditions.

After reviewing Dreckmeier's medical records, however, Targovnik says that Dreckmeier received excellent care at the hospital. The surgery was necessary because Dreckmeier had a life-threatening condition--a perforated bowel--and if doctors hadn't opened him up widely to clean him out, he would have died.

But Dreckmeier, still left in the dark by the medical center, is left to wonder what happened to him.

He says that in a previous surgery for his Crohn's, he had felt much better after only a week. But this time, after he had been moved to Madison Street Jail's infirmary, he did not recover well. He says he complained to doctors often. His urine was dark brown and his kidneys were sore, Dreckmeier says. He couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, and the pain in his gut was intense.

All of that was just a normal reaction to the surgery, he says doctors told him.

Dreckmeier, who had lost 40 pounds since his initial incarceration and could not bring himself to eat anything, began to hope that he would die.

"I didn't want to live; it hurt so bad," he says. "I was praying at night. Please take the pain away."

When his breathing became labored and his temperature hit 103 degrees, Dreckmeier knew something was seriously wrong. But doctors insisted that everything was normal, he says. On June 19, a doctor ordered a chest x-ray in response to Dreckmeier's complaints that he couldn't breathe.

The x-ray looked fine, the doctor told him.
The next day, after his attorney, Patti Shelton, won a judge's approval for him to be moved to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital-North, Dreckmeier was x-rayed again.

Only 24 hours after Madison Street Jail infirmary doctors had told him that he was fine, doctors at Scottsdale Memorial told Dreckmeier there was an abscess in his abdomen and that his x-ray showed pneumonia in one lung and fluid in both.

"I have this nightmare that I'm back in the county hospital and my belly is opened up and doctors are pulling shit out of me they shouldn't be taking out," Dreckmeier says as he recovers in Scottsdale Memorial.

Now that he's no longer an inmate, Dreckmeier is doing all he can to take advantage of his freedom.

Only days after his surgery to remove the abscess in his abdomen, Dreckmeier gingerly walked in his hospital garb from his room to a chapel downstairs.

There, with tubes still attached to various parts of his body, he married his girlfriend Melanie Shadowens. A week later, she gave birth to Jordan, their son.

In the days since, Dreckmeier has gained strength, although he still appears pale and walks hunched over slightly. He's out of the hospital and preparing for his next battle: to make the county pay for what he's been through.

"I'm going to sue because these people didn't know what they were doing," he says. "I don't want other people to go through what happened to me."

His attorney, Patti Shelton, with several colleagues has taken on several cases of inmate abuse and medical neglect, including that of Richard Post, the paraplegic who was put into a restraint chair so roughly jailers broke his neck. She plans to file a notice of claim with the county in Dreckmeier's case within days.

"I think we have to look at the broader issue," she says. "What happened to Damon was not an isolated issue. It was one of the more egregious cases, but not isolated. Damon looked like he had been in a concentration camp."

She says she's aware that Sheriff Joe Arpaio has bragged that a new report in the Department of Justice investigation will exonerate the jails and its medical staff. But she says that doesn't mean conditions in the jails have actually improved.

"I blame the U.S. attorney as much as anybody. The investigation was turned over to them, and as far as we can tell, they've just let the Sheriff's Office itself take care of the problems. And none of them have been taken care of. I mean, nobody wants to invite the federal government in to take care of things, but maybe it's time.

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