Monkeypox

Sparrow’s treatment of monkeypox patient raises questions

Health System offers no explanation for treatment of Black trans woman

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Ingham County’s first person with monkeypox is accusing Sparrow Health Systems of violating her rights during and following an Aug. 2 visit to the emergency department. 

Lynn Williams, a Black woman assigned male at birth, alleges that Sparrow providers misgendered her, failed to provide medical care and then informed her that officers were being sent to her home. 

City Pulse has learned that a Sparrow nurse called the East Lansing Police Department in an attempt to have officers knock on her door and convince her to return to the hospital. During the call, a nurse disclosed Williams’ protected health information to an ELPD supervisor, said Capt. Chad Pride, the East Lansing Police spokesperson. The nurse also provided information about Williams’ health to the police that differed from her medical records. The records report Williams was “stable and safe for discharge” from the ER, but the nurse told ELPD that she had left “erratically.” 

Nearly all of her allegations are substantiated by her own medical records, phone records and public records. Initially, Numerous efforts to question Sparrow about Williams’ claims were rebuffed or ignored. 

Despite all of this, Sparrow would unlikely face civil penalties unless Williams pursues a lawsuit. For the discrimination based on her gender identity that she alleges, Williams would have to file a complaint with the City of Lansing Department of Human Relations and Community Services or the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.  

A medical privacy claim might not fly because the Health Information Protection and Accountability Act — HIPAA — gives a doctor the right to disclose protected information if the doctor believes someone poses an imminent threat to the health, safety and welfare of the community.  

While Sparrow may have provided false information to police about her behavior, officials are unlikely to face criminal charges for filing a false police report because East Lansing’s city attorney believes such cases are too difficult to prove, Pride said. 

Williams, 35, was diagnosed as probably having monkeypox on July 30 at an urgent care center. It was the first of five reported cases in Ingham County. 

On Aug. 2, Williams was in pain from defecating blood for the last two days. She couldn’t sleep because of the itching and the pain combined. She decided to go to Sparrow to seek assistance. She was transported by ambulance to Sparrow Hospital’s emergency room shortly after 8 a.m.  

Four hours later, Williams left.  

She was furious she’d had no treatment, no IVs and no blood taken. Medical records obtained by City Pulse support that claim, showing that although blood tests were ordered that morning at 8:53, blood work was never drawn. Despite expressing her concern about the bloody stools, no internal exam was made to evaluate the potential for a bowel perforation, as recommended by standard GI bleeding assessment tools from the federal government.   

It also shows her sores were not swabbed for monkeypox testing until shortly before noon. 

She alleged she had been subjected to misgendering by the attending physician, James T. Millican. Her medical records show she was misgendered throughout the written narrative of her visit. The records say the narrative was written by a certified physician assistant assigned to her during the visit named Benjamin Sullivan.  

“They humiliated me, disrespected me,” Williams said. “They told me they couldn’t do anything to help me. That doctor misgendered me. I mean, look at me. Listen to me. I was carrying a purse.” 

She said Sullivan told her the hospital had no symptom-relief treatments for her and she was being discharged.  

“I was like, ‘OK, then I’m going home,” she said. “And I left.” 

That was noon. 

Medical records written by Sullivan, a 2021 graduate of Mercy College in New York, list her as “leaving without completing services (LWCS).” They do not note whether he spoke with her before she left.  

Sullivan’s written account of his subsequent attempts to encourage Williams to return to the ER and Williams’ recollection are similar. Hers is more explicit, his more moderate, referring to her using the “F” word when twice hanging up on him.  

“After all that, he tells me they can’t do anything to help me?” she said. “I wasn’t planning on going home. They told us when I arrived they were going to admit me. They didn’t, so I didn’t have any money on me [to take the bus], and I had to walk home,” despite her painful condition. 

She arrived home shortly after 1 p.m. At 1:38 p.m., she received a phone call from a Sparrow nurse, Kathryn Hettinger. Williams alleged Hettinger told her there were officers outside her apartment to help bring her back to the emergency department. As Hettinger kept talking, there was a knock on the door, Williams alleged.  

“I am not going back to the fucking hospital,” she screamed from the middle of her living room to whoever was knocking. “Go the fuck away,” she said.  

She did not go to the door.  

Both the East Lansing and Lansing police departments said they didn’t send anyone to her home. It may have been Sparrow officers. 

Sparrow operates its own private police force under Public Act 330. The state law allows private organizations to have armed police officers. Still, their police powers are limited to when they are in uniform, on the clock and on property owned or occupied by the business. 

Sparrow has not responded to questions about its security force and whether it dispatched anyone to Williams’ apartment. The Michigan State Police Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, which oversees the Act 330 officers, has not responded to inquiries about whether the officers possibly overstepped their jurisdiction. 

But City Pulse saw first-hand Sparrow’s willingness to use armed private security guard police officers.  

As part of the investigation into Williams’ allegations, City Pulse requested and obtained a medical privacy waiver from Williams authorizing Sparrow to release her medical records and discuss her care with a reporter. Sparrow spokesperson John Foren did not respond to numerous inquiries from City Pulse last week on where to file the request.  

As a result, this City Pulse reporter tried to deliver the medical privacy waiver to the health system’s administrative offices in the Sparrow Professional Building on Friday afternoon. I had notified Foren by email of my intention to do so.  

Instead of allowing me into the administrative offices’ waiting room to deliver the document or directing me where to deliver it, Sparrow sent an armed officer into the hallway who introduced himself as William.  

“Unfortunately, from what I was told, you have no business on Sparrow property. Nothing against you,” William said in a conversation I recorded. “But again, right now, we’re going to have to ask you to leave the property and have you go through the normal marketing channels.” 

After I was rebuffed, City Pulse sent the waiver by courier. On Wednesday, Sparrow released Williams’ medical records to City Pulse and phone calls to police were made. 

Documents and interviews reveal that at 3:05 p.m., the ELPD received a call from Sparrow. Pride, the public information officer at ELPD, declined to identify the nurse who called. The nurse asked police to perform a “welfare check” at Williams’ home.  

When a police supervisor called the nurse back, the nurse claimed Williams had left the hospital “erratically,” said Pride, and the hospital wanted to make sure she was OK. That claim contradicts the medical records. She also asked if officers could convince Williams to return to the hospital as she had a likely case of monkeypox.  

The supervisor declined to send police but offered to send an ambulance and fire. The nurse declined the offer.  

Hettinger, the nurse, wrote in a record entry that she asked the Ingham County Health Department how to handle the patient. An unnamed physician had expressed “concerns” after seeing her because she had “several open wounds to buttocks,” according to the medical record entry.   

State and local health officials said they were not involved in the decision to call police by Sparrow. 

Chelsea Wuth, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the call to ELPD did not violate the state’s public health code, which includes the Health Threat To Others provisions.  

Pride said the nurse’s claim to ELPD that Williams left “erratically” may rise to the level of filing a false police report. But ELPD is unlikely to pursue any criminal action because the city attorney has regularly dismissed such cases. Pride said the attorney believes the case law is too unsettled.  

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon said by email her office would review a misdemeanor case of filing a false police report or medical emergency, but she said that “it does not look like (on the limited information available) that this is a case involving the criminal legal system.” 

Dan Levy, the retired legal director for the Michigan Civil Rights Department, said the description of Williams’ ordeal matched with cases he had reviewed before the state had rules allowing the department to file discrimination charges. He said he was “amazed” at the health care failures Williams’ care raised.  

“Properly treating a person must always begin with showing that person respect,” Levy said. “Going to the hospital is unpleasant enough without then being degraded for being Black, female, transgender — or indeed all three. Whatever happened to ‘first, do no harm?’” 

-TODD HEYWOOD

monkeypox, medical racism, hospital, records

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