After two months of trying, and six months before he was to be released, 27-year-old Patrick Neal in July 2019 was taken from Limestone Correctional Facility to an outside hospital for severe pain, partial paralysis in his legs and loss of bodily control that caused him to soil his bed.
Less than 24 hours later, after nurses at Crestwood Medical Center accused him of faking it, his rare neurological condition resulted in permanent paralysis, according to a civil lawsuit filed Friday in the Northeastern Division of the U.S. District Court, which names the hospital, one of its doctors and two nurses as defendants.
Neal is at UAB Hospital in Birmingham where doctors are treating him for his rare condition, and for a tumor they’ve found on his spine.
Terilaine Wheeler, Neal’s sister, who holds a master’s degree in public health from Purdue University, told APR by phone Monday that prior to being admitted to UAB last week friends and family had to care for Neal at his home, as he’s unable to move on his own.
“He’s angry. He’s frustrated,” Wheeler said. “You’re telling people, ‘Hey, I’m in pain. I’m hurting. Something is not right.’ And they’re not listening because they think you just want to get out of your cell.”
Neal has four children and a son born just before he entered prison in 2015, Wheeler said.
“He just cries to me. I’ll never be able to teach my son how to play basketball, never be able to throw a football with my son and teach him how to play football,” Wheeler said. “I’ll never be able to be an active father. He just cries all the time, because he’s just like, my life is over. I’m just stuck to a bed.”
The lawsuit names as defendants Wexford Health Sources, the Pittsburgh-based medical provider contracted with the Alabama Department of Corrections to care for incarcerated people in state prisons. Additionally, the suit names as defendants nurses and medical doctors employed by Wexford, and the Madison County provider Emergency Medical Associates, contracted by Wexford to provide emergency room care for Limestone prisoners.
Neal had just six months left in his sentence when in May 2019 he developed transverse myelitis, according to the complaint. The rare neurological disorder can cause inflammation of both sides of one section of the spinal cord, which can lead to severe pain, loss of bowel and bladder control, paralysis in arms and legs and loss of sexual function, according to the Mayo Clinic.
On May 29, 2019, Neal submitted his first written request seeking medical care to learn what was causing him weakness, partial paralysis and pain in his abdomen and lower back, according to the suit. Through June 20 of that year, as his condition worsened, he submitted five written requests and was seen by a registered nurse at the prison three times.
“I really am worried because I don’t know the cause of these symptoms,” Neal wrote in one request. “I just need test run to figure out what’s going on with me”
Despite his worsening condition, and “red flag” warnings of a potentially serious neurological condition, the nurse never moved his case on to an advanced practice nurse or physician, the complaint reads.
“He never made it past the nurse Sick Call Clinic,” Neal’s attorney wrote in the complaint.
Neal then lost the ability to control his bladder and bowel and submitted another request on July 1, 2019. Two nurses evaluated Neal, who said on a scale of one to 10 his pain was a 10, and was given Tylenol and ibuprofen and sent back to his dorm.
“The nurses noted that Patrick needed a referral to the prison’s primary care provider for chronic back pain and an ineffective medication regiment,” the complaint reads. “Despite Patrick’s emergent medical needs, he would have to wait 16 days for his next appointment.”
By the time he saw a certified nurse practitioner 16 days later Neal’s condition was so grave that “other inmates had to carry him from his bunk to the toilet,” the suit reads.
“Another inmate, Corey Cole, asked a cube officer for permission to start bringing Patrick sack meals since he could not make it to the cafeteria,” the suit states. “The cube officer told the inmate not to worry about it because, in the officer’s words, Patrick Neal was a ‘lost cause.’”
The nurse noted Neal complained of “increased lower extremity weakness” and muscle waste in his left leg, all symptoms of a possible neurological disorder and a clear sign that he needed immediate medical care from a physician, according to the lawsuit. He was given a cane and told to wait until Wexford processed a claim to have him seen at an outside facility for an MRI.
Neal collapsed in his dorm on July 21, was sent to the infirmary and treated for his incontinence, and sent back to his dorm in a wheelchair, according to the complaint.
“Again, Patrick was denied the medical care needed to diagnose and treat his spinal cord emergency,” the lawsuit states.
As of July 24, when Neal saw the certified nurse practitioner again, he had been sent to the infirmary for at least the 11th time in two months. The nurse attributed Neal’s conditions wrongly to a non-emergent condition but spoke with Wexford’s regional medical director, who ordered that Neal be immediately taken to an emergency room.
Neal thought that perhaps after those two months of trying to get proper medical care, he was finally about to get it, at an outside hospital, but that wasn’t to be, according to the lawsuit.
“The nurses at the Crestwood Medical Center accused him of faking his condition and, yet again, he was denied a proper evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of his spinal cord emergency,” the lawsuit reads. “Astonishingly, Patrick’s attending physician, Dr. Dianna Osborn, discharged him back to the prison with a pamphlet for sciatica.”
The next day, after returning to the prison infirmary, Neal lost all reflexes below the waist, soiled his bed and was sent back to the emergency room, specifying that he be given an MRI and consultation for a possible neurological condition, according to the complaint.
“On July 25, 2019, Patrick Neal finally received the MRI and neurology consult needed to diagnose his transverse myelitis. It was too late, though. The inflammation extended from his mid-thoracic to distal thoracic spinal cord and had caused permanent, flaccid paralysis from his abdomen and below. Patrick had lost his lower extremity, bowel, bladder, and sexual function, forever,” the complaint states.
After being released from prison on Oct. 30, 2019, Neal lost all use of his upper body and developed severe complications, including heart and respiratory failure, resulting in prolonged hospitalizations.
Wexford was paid more than $360 million by ADOC from April 2018 through September 2021, according to the lawsuit.
“Wexford also had a financial incentive to limit and deny inmates access to off-site health care, including diagnostic services, medical specialists, emergency care, and hospital services. In short, Wexford made more money from its lump-sum compensation by restricting inmates’ access to higher-level practitioners and off-site medical care,” the complaint reads. ”And, it was up to Wexford to determine whether it had cut into its profit margin to providing higher-level and off-site care to ADOC s inmates.”
Bruce Downey, Neal’s attorney, in a statement to APR on Monday, said that at only 27, and within six months of his release, Neal developed a serious disorder causing compression of his spinal cord, and over a period of two months, he repeatedly sought care from Wexford but was denied care for his spinal cord emergency until he developed bilateral lower extremity paralysis “among other catastrophically life-altering conditions.”
“Patrick will suffer the catastrophic consequences for the remainder of his life, as will his family, friends, and community,” Downey said. “While this case is about seeking justice and accountability for Patrick’s needless pain and suffering, he hopes that it will shine a light on the unconstitutional and inhumane health care being provided within Alabama’s correctional institutions and help bring about change.”
Attempts to contact Wexford Health for comment were unsuccessful.