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Patients, family members tell their side of the story; closing arguments in Skilled Healthcare case to conclude today

Times Standard
By Matt Drange
June 17, 2010

While the class-action lawsuit against Skilled Healthcare continues today in Humboldt County Superior Court, some people have only recently been able to watch the arguments in the case unfold.

Cindy Cool testified earlier in the suit on behalf of her father, Jack Stern, a former patient at Eureka Healthcare and Rehabilitation -- one of the facilities being sued. She appeared again in court for the closing arguments this week.

"The minute they mentioned my dad's name and what happened over there ... the tears just started rolling down my face," said Cool, who remembers feeling scared as she got up on the witness stand.

For Cool, the case brings distinct memories of her father, who lived at the Eureka facility from 2004 to 2006. Cool made the drive from her home in Blue Lake to visit him four or five days a week until he died from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

"I would come in to find him sitting on the love seat in the lobby -- his sweat pants soiled and urine dripping down into his shoes," said Cool. "I saw other patients walking around with their catheters dragging on the ground, leaving a trail of urine behind them."

Cool said that her father would have to wait for long periods of time before receiving attention, sometimes up to a half-hour. She recalled one day when she found that her father's face had not been washed. When she asked the nurses when his dentures were last cleaned, they replied, "We didn't even know he had dentures."

"Its hard to walk into a place like that," said Cool. "Especially when people aren't being taken care of." The issue at the center of the lawsuit, which spans years from 2003 to 2009, is whether or not Skilled Healthcare facilities provided adequate staffing levels for patients. California mandates that facilities maintain 3.2 nursing hours per-patient, per-day.

Skilled Healthcare owns 22 facilities in the state that are being sued, five of which are here in Humboldt County.

Some feel that the case is a slap in the face to the hard work that nurses do every day. Chris Myers is a nurse at St. Luke Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Fortuna. She feels that the nursing staff at St. Luke, which she has been a part of for five years, is adequately staffed.

"I am very proud to work there," said Myers, who attended the closing arguments in the case on Tuesday. "I think there are enough of us. Absolutely."

Myers said that she doesn't think people who have never been inside a nursing home should be making accusations, and wants people to realize that working as a nurse is difficult.

"It's kind of silly," said Myers of the case. "It's easy for people to just stand back and judge."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, however, contend that the case is not about how hardworking or dedicated the nursing staff at these homes are, but rather a matter of how many people there are to do the job.

Cool said that she never had a problem with the staff who helped her father, and added that the nursing home staff was very supportive when it became clear her father was going to die.

"They were wonderful," said Cool. "The day that he died all the CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants) came in and told me how much they loved my dad."

Cool said that she checked out other options in the area with her sister, but when she walked into one -- which she declined to name -- she found the smell of urine was overwhelming. Because of her father's deteriorating condition, he required a lockdown facility. Cool decided that Eureka was the best available option.

But some people aren't able to choose the facility in which they end up.

Diana Medal remembers the ambulance that came to get her at 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 17, 2010. Medal, 71, had fallen for the third time at her home in Eureka -- this time fracturing her back. She was taken to St. Joseph hospital for about a week before learning she would need to undergo rehab exercises at Granada Healthcare and Rehabilitation.

"A lot of people told me never to go there," said Medal. "I would never send my worst enemy to Granada." Medal said that Granada was often understaffed, especially around mealtimes. She said that hygiene was a major issue and that patients were only allowed two showers a week. She recalled long waits at night when she would request a bedpan.

"I wouldn't ring that bell just to ring it," she said. "I did it because I needed help."

Medal has osteoporosis, which makes it difficult for her to get around. She checked into the Granada facility in late January of 2010, right around the time that Vinnie Lavender, one of the pair of local defendants named to represent the class in the lawsuit, passed away.

Medal is a widow and was born and raised in San Francisco. But when her condition worsened, she was forced to move to Humboldt County. She said that if it weren't for the nurses who helped her during her stay, she would still be at Granada.

"I'm a survivor," said Medal. "If I can make it out of that place, I can make it anywhere."

Medal now lives at her home in Eureka, which, with the help of nursing staff, has been remodeled to enable her to get around on her own. She is following the Skilled Healthcare case closely.

The suit, which represents a class of some 32,000 patients, is set to continue today with closing arguments. Once both sides have rested their case, it will be up to the jury to decide the outcome. Millions of dollars could be at stake for Skilled Healthcare, depending on statutory damages that might be assessed.

For Cindy Cool, all she wants to see is change.

"I just want the situation to get better for other people and their loved ones," said Cool. "I would like to think that when I get to be that age, I will be taken care of."

Matt Drange can be reached at 441-0514 or