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Neglect, a hard fight and a life lost

Sherri Cavender had liver cancer, a bad hand if there ever was one, but she had a personality that made you think she could beat it.

Tough, feisty, stubborn, ornery -- all applied to this 50-year-old LaGrange woman who lost her battle with the disease Thursday night at Harbor Grace Hospice in Atlanta.

I wrote about Cavender last year in a story on three former Pulaski State Prison inmates whose cancers had gone undiagnosed until they were seen by doctors on the outside. Each of their stories were compelling, but Sherri's was perhaps the most heartbreaking.

As I reported, Sherri begged for a colonoscopy as she endured months of intense abdominal pain and heavy rectal bleeding. The bleeding got so bad, she said, “it looked like somebody opened a bag.” Yet the prison’s medical director, Dr. Yvon Nazaire, and others under his supervision balked at anything that would require outside tests or consultations.

Finally, after she fainted from losing so much blood, Sherri was hospitalized. A colonoscopy confirmed that she had cancer. Surgery found that it had spread from her colon to her liver.

That was in November 2012. A few months later, she was allowed to return to LaGrange, where she lived with her husband, Andy, and her two beloved dogs, Thor and Buddy, until she was hospitalized a few weeks ago.

During one of our interviews, Sherri recalled how she became so frustrated with Nazaire that she cursed him, prompting the doctor to call for guards to remove her from the infirmary.

“I told him to his face, `You son of a bitch, you’re not gonna kill me. You might kill these other woman, but you’re not gonna kill me,'” she said, obviously relishing the fact that she had caused Nazaire to panic.

By late last year, it became clear that chemotherapy was no longer doing any good, so Sherri underwent a treatment at Emory that sent tiny pellets with radiation directly to her liver.

"The chemo was so bad," she said. "Right now, radiation on my liver sounds like a party."

Sherri was not a short-timer at Pulaski. She was sentenced to 30 years for methamphetamine trafficking and had to serve at least 15. She was three years in when she was released.

She knew she had made mistakes; she didn’t sugarcoat that either. But she also made it plain that nobody, not even the most hardened criminal, deserved the kind of medical neglect that was allowed to occur on Nazaire’s watch.

Asked what she wanted to accomplish by speaking out, she was typically blunt.

“So it will keep him from killing somebody else,” she said. “Everyone makes mistakes. Some of us go to prison. Some of us do not. There are some bad people (in prison), but 99 percent are just people who have made bad decisions. They do not deserve to have a death sentence put on them because the doctor is incompetent.”

I first learned of Sherri's plight last summer in an email from her sister, Terri Trask, who lives outside of Houston. Friday, I got another email from Terri.

“Sherri was the most giving person I knew,” she wrote. “She helped everyone she could. Even if she didn’t have extra to give, she gave all she had.

“Sherri didn’t have to die at the young age of 50," she told me. "Because of severe neglect from Dr. Nazaire at Pulaski State Prison, she fought cancer until her body couldn’t fight anymore. She was loved by many and will be greatly missed.”



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About the Author

Danny Robbins in an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.