Eighty-six-year-old killed in ER ‘over social-distancing rules’

Dementia patient fatally injured after stumbling and clutching another patient’s IV pole

Social-distancing death: Janie Marshall, whom New York police say was attacked for violating another patient’s personal space in an emergency room. Photograph via Eleanor Leonard/New York Times

Social-distancing death: Janie Marshall, whom New York police say was attacked for violating another patient’s personal space in an emergency room. Photograph via Eleanor Leonard/New York Times

 

One Saturday afternoon in late March, as the coronavirus pandemic flooded hospitals across New York City with desperately ill people, an 86-year-old lost her bearings and started wandering the emergency room at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center, in Brooklyn.

The woman, Janie Marshall, who had dementia, grabbed on to another patient’s IV pole to regain her balance and orient herself, police said. The patient, Cassandra Lundy, who is 32, had apparently become irate that Marshall had broken the two metres of personal space recommended to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, law-enforcement officials said. Lundy shoved the older woman, knocking her to the floor. Marshall struck her head and died three hours later.

Marshall’s death underscores how hospital officials are struggling to keep order in healthcare facilities overrun by the pandemic, as crowding generates a new level of fear and anxiety. Initially, hospital officials handed Lundy a summons for disorderly conduct. But a week later, after the medical examiner ruled Marshall’s death a homicide, police charged Lundy with manslaughter and assault.

I understand the fear level of every person in New York. There is a notion of every man for themselves. But attacking an elderly person? That went too far

“How do you put your hands on an 86-year-old woman?” says Marshall’s grandniece, Antoinette Leonard Jean Charles, a 41-year-old medical student in Tennessee. “I also understand the fear level of every person in New York. There is a notion of every man for themselves. But attacking an elderly person? That went too far.”

Lundy’s public defender, George Cooke, could not be immediately reached for comment on the charges. New York officials imposed social-distancing rules – maintaining space between people to stop the spread of the highly contagious virus – in mid-March, shortly after the metropolis became the epicentre of the outbreak in the United States. The virus has claimed the lives of thousands of New Yorkers in a little more than a month.

Woodhull hospital officials say they are co-operating with investigators. “We are terribly saddened by this death,” the hospital says in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring a safe, health-focused environment in these very demanding times so our heroic health care workers can continue to deliver the quality, compassionate care New Yorkers need more than ever.”

The events that led to Marshall’s death began on March 27th, when she told her niece she had a piercing stomach ache. The niece, 72-year-old Eleanor Leonard, called an ambulance, which took Marshall to Woodhull, where she had been treated for similar symptoms earlier in the week.

In the crowded emergency room, Marshall was diagnosed with a blocked bowel, and doctors said they would admit her, Leonard says. But the hospital, in an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus, did not allow Leonard or other family to stay with her in the emergency room. Leonard says she could do nothing but wait by the phone for updates.

The next day, around 2pm, Marshall, disoriented, began walking around the emergency room, police say. She crossed paths with Lundy, and the women – both from Brooklyn – got into an argument before the younger woman pushed her to the ground.

We thought it was weird when the hospital said cardiac arrest. She had gone in for something completely different. She suffered from dementia, bowel blockage, not heart problems

Marshall hit her head on the floor, lost consciousness and died hours later, investigators say. Lundy told detectives she shoved Marshall because she “got into the defendant’s space”, according to a criminal complaint. The attack was captured on surveillance video, it says.

Unaware of Marshall’s injury, Leonard kept calling the hospital that day. She finally reached someone shortly after 5pm who told her that Marshall was with a nurse, receiving medical care. “I thought, That’s great: she’s being tended to,” Leonard says. “I didn’t know she was dead already.”

Leonard went to sleep feeling hopeful. Her phone rang at 3.30am the next morning. A doctor told her that Marshall had gone into cardiac arrest. “Are you telling me she’s dead?” Leonard recalls saying. “What happened?”

Leonard says she went to the hospital later that morning but after several hours of waiting was sent home without an explanation. “We thought it was weird – cardiac arrest?” Jean Charles, the grandniece, says. “She had gone in for something completely different. She suffered from dementia, bowel blockage, not heart problems that we knew of.”

Then a cousin on Long Island called Leonard with troubling news. He had seen a news report online. “Did you know your aunt was murdered?” the cousin asked. Leonard then searched her aunt’s name on Google and saw news accounts. “I was so stunned,” she says. “It just tore at my gut that something like this would happen.” Leonard wonders why hospital officials did not inform her about the incident when it happened. “I understand we are in the middle of a pandemic,” she says, “but to say nothing?”

Marshall was born in Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1934, the youngest of 12 children. Her parents died when she was young, and she followed some of her siblings to New York City, settling in Williamsburg, according to family members. “She arrived with big dreams and wide eyes, ready to take on the world,” Jean Charles says.

We don’t want to remember her as a victim. She always told us, there is no shame in being the first African American in any field. She was a leader

She became a successful accountant at a time when few black women practised the profession, eventually working in social-security administration and earning a bachelor’s degree from Queens College. She never married or had children, but she was a role model to her numerous nieces and nephews, her relatives say.

“We don’t want to remember her as a victim,” Jean Charles says. “She always told us, there is no shame in being the first African American in any field. She was a leader.”

As it has become customary during the coronavirus pandemic, Marshall’s relatives and members of her church, Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, were planning to attend a virtual funeral service to abide by social-distancing rules, her family say.

Leonard says she plans to ride in a limousine by herself to Pinelawn Memorial Park on Long Island and bid her one last farewell from inside the vehicle. “We want to obey social-distancing rules, and yet she died because of these social-distancing rules,” Jean-Charles says. “It’s ironic in a very sad way.” – New York Times

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