- Danny Robbins The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In the Macon State Prison infirmary, even the most hardened healthcare professionals were shocked as they twice watched inmates reeling with horrific symptoms.
One inmate, a diabetic, was near delirium as a wound on his leg became dangerously infected. The smell of his rotting flesh was so powerful it was noticeable in the next room.
The other, a former deputy sheriff from the Atlanta area with HIV, was in agony because he wasn’t getting the drugs he needed for a severe case of genital herpes. The oozing infection made it difficult for him even to walk.
As weeks went by and nothing changed, those tending to the men on a regular basis found their concern turning to frustration and finally a harsh realization: The doctor in charge, they testified, would not end the suffering.
Those cases, still vivid some five years later to those who were there, are a window into allegations that the medical director at one of the most important prison healthcare facilities in Georgia has at times treated inmates with a callousness bordering on cruelty.
The conduct of Dr. Chiquita Fye, Macon State Prison’s medical director since 2006, has come into sharp focus within the last year due to a pair of lawsuits that have been green-lighted for trial.
Even Fye’s critics regard the Emory-trained doctor, one of the longest-tenured physicians working in the state prison system, as competent and capable of providing superior care.
But some former prison healthcare workers say her disdain for criminals — the very people she’s paid to care for — influences her treatment of them. And that, they say, has caused serious harm for some who desperately needed her help.
In interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution or deposition testimony, six described how Fye, 65, has withheld vital treatment and medication from sick or injured inmates at the Oglethorpe prison, in some cases because she believed the inmates were faking or trying to take advantage of her.
“If you’re in healthcare to help and heal, you can’t judge people like she does,” said Geneva Lamb-Turner, a nurse who worked at the prison for five years before leaving in 2015. “She thinks everybody there is up to no good. It’s a power thing for her. It’s personal.”
One lawsuit deals with the treatment of an inmate whose left leg had to be amputated above the knee after a dime-size cut became severely infected.
Michael Tarver, 55, went months without adequate wound care even though, as a diabetic with circulation problems, he was vulnerable to infection, his lawsuit alleges. Indeed, no effective treatment was ordered until after the wound turned grotesquely toxic, the suit contends.
The other suit involves a man who suffered a seizure when he was placed in the prison’s isolation-segregation unit and cut off cold turkey from his daily dose of Xanax.
William Stoner, 38, was moved to the prison from a probation detention facility specifically so he could be monitored in the prison’s medical unit for symptoms of withdrawal. But the lawsuit alleges Fye did nothing to ensure Stoner’s safety even though she was made aware of his dependency on the anti-anxiety drug.
Tarver’s suit is particularly compelling because the inmate, serving a sentence of life without parole for the 1994 murder of a Columbus convenience store clerk, initially filed it without the aid of a lawyer.
Typically, such “pro se” lawsuits fail because they do not pass legal muster. But Tarver’s suit, neatly written in longhand on 26 lined pages, survived the usual procedural challenges and now is scheduled for trial next month in federal court in Macon.
Even more surprising, five of Fye’s former employees have given depositions in which they supported Tarver’s claim.
Mike Brown, an Augusta attorney who has been representing Tarver since the discovery process began, said he has never seen a case in which so many people were willing to testify against the doctor they once worked for.
“All these people who would normally, almost invariably, say, `Well, (the doctor) did the best she could…’ aren’t doing it,” Brown said.
It was during one of the depositions that a physician assistant, Colette Nash, revealed the grisly details of what occurred with the former deputy sheriff whose herpes was left untreated.
“I wanted to leave that month,” Nash testified. “I had nightmares on that one. I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life.”
Fye declined to be interviewed for this story. She said she has been told by her supervisors at Georgia Correctional HealthCare, the branch of Augusta University that provides medical personnel for the Department of Corrections, not to discuss the ongoing legal cases “with reporters or anyone else.”
The attorney representing Fye in the Tarver case, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Crowder, was unable to comment, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office said.
Answering deposition questions for Stoner’s lawsuit, Fye said she treats prison inmates no differently than she would any other patients.
“There’s no difference in my care…,” she stated. “Never has been and never will be.”
The issues surrounding Fye raise fresh questions for Georgia Correctional HealthCare, which less than two years ago was forced to fire the physician most responsible for treating female inmates, Dr. Yvon Nazaire, and revise its policies for treating women in general.
Nazaire’s dismissal and the changes in policy occurred after the AJC revealed how nine women had died under questionable circumstances while in his care at two different prisons.
Fye, who receives an annual salary of $159,324, is another key part of Georgia Correctional HealthCare’s roster of physicians. As the medical director at Macon State Prison, a close security facility 130 miles south of Atlanta, she heads a unit that employs 20 nurses and upper-level providers and provides round-the-clock care to thousands of men from multiple institutions.
Dr. Billy Nichols, the organization’s statewide medical director, did not respond to multiple queries from the AJC seeking comment. In an email to the AJC, the university’s associate vice president for communications, Christen Engel, wrote: “Unfortunately, we can’t provide comment due to pending litigation.”
Fye’s supervisors have given her glowing annual evaluations even though Georgia Correctional HealthCare records show she has a history of demeaning nurses and others working for her.
A September 2012 memo from Page Fletcher, Georgia Correctional HealthCare’s southwest regional manager, to the organization’s director of human resources, Danny Finn, quoted several unnamed nurses who were critical of Fye. One said the doctor could be “very demeaning.” Another said she was over-worked and under increased stress.
Fletcher prepared the memo after visiting the prison in response to a nurse whose letter of resignation cited Fye’s attitude as one of several unprofessional aspects of the job.
When Tarver slipped on a wet floor in the prison kitchen and cut himself on the edge of a machine, it started a chain of events that would put him on an operating table at Atlanta Medical Center and open Fye to some of the harshest criticism a doctor can face.
Records show Tarver was seen in the prison medical unit at various times during the summer of 2012 and even spent more than a month in the infirmary. But it wasn’t until late September that Fye arranged for the inmate to receive wound care outside the facility, and, by then, it was too late.
One of the nation’s leading wound care experts, Dr. John Macdonald, found the records and depositions in the case so disturbing he agreed to serve as an expert witness for Tarver despite long-standing reservations about second-guessing other doctors.
“Something’s wrong with Dr. Fye,” he testified. “I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know how it fits in, but it’s so egregious that I don’t know the definition of it. I feel sorry for her. She’s got some problems.”
Macdonald, a professor at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine who established a wound care clinic in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, said what happened to Tarver “would have never happened in Haiti.”
Discussing the case with the AJC, Macdonald said it was particularly distressing to see that Fye went to medical school at Emory. “How could someone coming from one of the best medical schools in America be so off base in terms of basic medical morality?” he said.
Lamb-Turner, testifying in a deposition, remembered that nothing was done for Tarver even when the smell from his unbandaged wound was strong enough to penetrate “through concrete.”
Another nurse, Earlene Russell, testified that she noticed blackened tissue had formed inside the wound and pointed it out to Fye. Russell said she hoped the doctor would remove the tissue so the wound could heal, but that didn’t happen.
Nash testified that she advised Fye that Tarver should be examined by a wound care specialist and later took it upon herself to write the order for a consultation.
Tarver’s medical records show that Nash wrote on Sept. 4, 2012: “Spoke to Dr. Fye, may need wound clinic referral.” However, the records do not include an order from Nash requesting a consultation.
Gaps in Tarver’s medical records have been a point of controversy since the case began and have been labeled “highly suspicious” by Brown, Tarver’s lawyer, in court documents.
Fye asserts in court filings that she treated Tarver’s wound appropriately because she twice ordered intravenous antibiotics and at one point approved a trip to a local emergency room.
In a deposition, Fye said she didn’t recall Nash asking for a wound care specialist and denied being told by Russell that the wound had turned black. She also said she never noticed an unusual odor.
“To be honest, I never smelled it,” she said.
A shocking discovery
Just as troubling for some was how the former deputy was treated.
Asked during her deposition whether she had witnessed other incidents that gave her reason to be concerned, Nash described how the former deputy was denied a stronger drug for his herpes as well as pain medication and then was moved from the infirmary to isolation-segregation.
Nash said the deputy, whose name she did not recall, was in terrible shape, with sores across his scrotum and a large ulcer on the base of his penis. Still, she said, Fye wanted him out of the infirmary.
“Something happened in the infirmary, and Dr. Fye got mad with him and … told him, `I’m not treating you anymore,’ and sent him to the hole,” Nash testified.
Nash said she later visited the former deputy and was shocked by what she found.
“He was on his knees … and I said, `Stand up,’” she testified. “He said, `I can’t stand.’ I said, `I need to see you. Do you have a dead rodent in there, because it stinks,’ and he said, `I’ve been in here for two months and no one has given me any help.’”
Entering the cell, Nash said she found green slime had drained over the man’s penis and testicles and that his groin and thighs were so swollen he couldn’t walk.
Nash said she was so put off that she contacted the warden, who arranged for the former deputy to be returned to the infirmary so he could be properly cared for.
Nash declined to be interviewed at length for this story but said she stands by everything she said in the deposition.
The AJC was able to identify and contact the former deputy, who said Nash’s account is accurate.
The former deputy, who asked that his name not be used to protect his privacy, said Fye became angry with him after one of the caregivers in the infirmary gave him a bottle of Ensure. Even though he hadn’t asked for the drink, Fye accused him of “manipulating the nurses” to get it, he said.
“I don’t know if she was just having a bad day, but, from that point on, everything went south,” he said.
Describing the pain he experienced while he was in isolation, the former deputy said, “The words haven’t been invented for how bad that feels.”
Only after he was transferred to the state medical prison in Augusta did he get the treatment he needed, he said.
“That was definitely what happened,” he said, referring to his time in Fye’s care. “However, I’m fine now. I got away from there.”
Stuck in isolation
Stoner’s time in Fye’s medical unit was brief — just a few days in 2013 — but no less traumatic.
Denied the Xanax he had been taking and locked away in the isolation-segregation unit, he suffered a seizure on his first night and was discovered in the morning unresponsive on the floor. He later was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Macon, where he was intubated and required a ventilator to breathe.
“When you’re put into that situation, in a really dangerous place and you aren’t going to get your meds, it’s really scary,” he said, discussing the incident recently.
People who stop using Xanax or similar anti-anxiety medication can experience severe withdrawal symptoms within hours, including seizures and convulsions, unless they are weaned off the drugs.
Stoner, in fact, wasn’t supposed to be in prison. A first-time offender convicted of interfering with a police officer, he was sentenced to 60 days at the Bleckley Probation Detention Center in Cochran.
But when officials at the minimum security facility realized he had been prescribed up to five Xanax a day, they had him transferred to the prison medical unit because it was better equipped to look after him in case of withdrawal.
The paperwork for the transfer listed drugs Stoner had been taking. It also quoted him as saying he was “very disoriented” because he hadn’t taken his Xanax.
After Stoner got to the prison, his mother contacted Fye. Margaret Stoner said she told the doctor she was particularly worried about what could happen to her son without his Xanax. She said Fye told her that inmates often say they need certain medications when it isn’t true.
In court documents, Fye asserts there was no reason to change Stoner’s medication because he arrived with only one drug, the blood thinner Coumadin. She also states that she believed Stoner would be adequately supervised in the isolation-segregation unit because officers are supposed to check on inmates there every 30 minutes.
Margaret Stoner said her son deserved better than that.
“I am so angry that something that should have been so cut and dried, that should have been handled, ended up so tragically wrong,” she said.