*Editor's Note (July 12, 2017): Due to an editing mistake this article originally had an incorrect headline. Galveston County jailers do not give medication to inmates, that is handled by the medical staff. The Houston Press apologizes for the error.
Jackie Burlingame knew her father's illness was serious when other inmates at the Galveston County Jail started calling her, telling her he was in trouble.
Her dad, 58-year-old Jorge Cortez, could not get out of bed, they told her. He was barely eating. He could barely talk. And he could barely breathe. Cortez had been going to the jail medical clinic repeatedly, but all they gave him was ibuprofen before returning him to his cell in a wheelchair. He talked to Burlingame about it almost every day, while panting and wheezing over the phone as though he had just run three miles. His daughter was confounded as to why the nurses and doctors weren’t hearing the same thing. It was unlike her father to even want help at all, yet Cortez — who had been a mechanic for the past 40 years, who worked on cars in the Houston and Brownsville heat and rode his bike everywhere without complaint — was now begging for it.
“You could hear it in his voice,” Burlingame said. “I felt helpless. I couldn’t help him. I didn’t know how to deal with it, because week after week he would just sound worse and worse. And then I stopped hearing from him.”
Cortez died in a hospital bed at the University of Texas Medical Branch four weeks after being transported there in an ambulance from the jail. His autopsy is pending, but doctors told Burlingame that her father was undergoing acute respiratory distress and lung failure at the time of his death. Upon admission to the hospital, he had been diagnosed with what’s called traumatic hemopneumothorax — essentially trauma-induced pneumonia, believed to be caused in Cortez’s case by a bad fall off his top bunk bed. After doctors removed fluid and scar tissue from his lungs during surgery, however, Cortez was still suffering. Doctors later determined he likely also had an underlying rare type of cancer, mesothelioma, while others told Burlingame they were “not convinced" without further testing.
In any case, she said she feels certain that the Galveston County Jail medical staff provided woefully lacking treatment for her father, despite his repeated complaints, and failed to recognize the seriousness of Cortez's deteriorating condition until it was far too late. She's now pursuing legal action.
“To me it goes back to the medical department,” said her attorney, U.A. Lewis. “This person was suffering so much to where the inmates felt the need to step in, and the jailers felt the need to step in. If you’re an inmate, you cannot access medical care for yourself except for what they have available. And if what they have available is this inadequate medical provider, then they’re actually more of a blockade to medical care.”
On top of $300 in court costs, a one-time $100 payment to the Department of Court Services and $25 to the Crime Stoppers program, Cortez owed $65 a month to cover supervision fees plus the costs of frequent drug testing. The mechanic had lost his job at the shop he worked at in Houston following his arrest, and he returned to Brownsville, where he and his two daughters are from, to find odd jobs wherever he could.
He fell $900 in the hole. Then he fell back into drugs.
Burlingame said that after a judge ordered him to cough up the money within the next week, her dad had to sell his toolbox — his livelihood — in order to comply. But that made finding work significantly harder. That same week, his 86-year-old mother had quadruple bypass surgery. And Burlingame says she believes the stress had come to a halt for her dad. Cortez failed his next drug test, and the judge ordered him to rehab. Because there was no opening for him at the rehab center, he was to remain in jail until there was one.
“He always said, ‘I put myself in this situation,’” Burlingame said. “This last time, I’ll be honest, I did get very upset with him. On one of these calls, I told him, 'Dad, why? You were almost out.' But never did he say take me out of here. No. [While he was sick], mainly he would say, call the probation officer — ask him, how much longer?”
The rehab spot never opened up for Cortez, at least not until he was already in the hospital on May 31. Burlingame said he started to complain about chest pain and breathing problems after he fell off his bunk bed in mid-May. Cortez had had brain surgery several years earlier after being hit by a car, and, according to medical records obtained by theHouston Press,
he told jail medical staff about his dizziness on the top bunk and requested a bottom bunk on five separate occasions. Yet he was told he "doesn't qualify." At least not until he fell off and got hurt.
Records indicate that it was on May 22 that Cortez first complained to a licensed vocational nurse that he couldn't breathe. The nurse recorded in her notes: "[Patient states] 'my back and shoulders hurt. I am having trouble breathing, you know like when you are sick and have all that sinus stuff.' I state 'like sinus congestion/mucus." Pt states 'yes.'" At that, the nurse recorded that Cortez's breathing is "non labored," and after Cortez again described the pain in his shoulders and back, she told Cortez that "he is not here for a back/shoulder problem" and sent him back to his cell with ibuprofen.
The next day, he returned to the same nurse in a wheelchair, after a deputy noticed he was having trouble breathing. Still complaining of the pain in his chest area, Cortez was described as "breathing rapidly and moaning in pain." He was unable even to move his right arm up and down. The nurse recorded that his lungs were "clear" and sent him back to his cell with ibuprofen. The same thing happened again on May 29.
It was not until a deputy informed a doctor that Cortez had not gotten out of bed in 24 hours, on May 31, that medical staff began to take his complaints more seriously. The doctor who examined his lungs found that they were in fact not clear, that he was wheezing and hadn't eaten in 14 hours. He was brought to see the head medical provider, Dr. Garry Killyon, who recorded that "he has now developed shortness of breath" as though this were news to the medical team, and that Cortez was in acute respiratory distress. Finally, the jail called an ambulance for Cortez.
Burlingame would have no idea her father was in the hospital until June 7, when UTMB called asking for her permission to perform surgery on Cortez to remove fluid that had built up in his lungs, presumably after he injured his chest during the fall.
"I never got a call from the jail, ever," Burlingame said. "I was upset. I was raging. I called and the sergeant there told me, 'We don't have to call you unless it's an emergency.' I said, 'Well, what do you consider an emergency?' My dad was on a ventilator and needed surgery."
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Burlingame and her sister, Jenny, rushed to Galveston to visit Cortez after he was finished with surgery. He could no longer talk, and instead communicated with his daughters by writing notes. The Galveston County Jail restricted their visits to two each per week, for 20 minutes at a time. They were not allowed to bring him any gifts or surprises on his birthday, June 13. By June 20, when a judge finally ordered that Cortez be released from custody, Cortez was barely able to nod his head or open his eyes. He died on June 23.
Galveston County Sheriff's Office command staff and medical staff refused to answer any questions related to Cortez's medical care. In fact, Captain Kevin Walker, who oversees the jail, told us that "if you say you have his entire medical records, I don't know what questions that you would have for me besides when was he released." Walker disputed that the jail failed to notify the family about Cortez's hospitalization, but, asked when or how the family was notified, he was unable to produce that information. Kathy White, a registered nurse and health services administrator at the jail (employed by Boon-Chapman, the contracted medical provider), said she couldn't discuss Cortez's case because of privacy laws.
Burlingame and her attorney, Lewis, say they intend to seek answers from the Galveston authorities through a looming lawsuit, regardless of what the medical examiner determines was the final cause of death. Lewis said that whether it's mesothelioma, the hemopneumothorax or both that killed Cortez, she believes his rights were violated. Pursuing justice, Burlingame said, was a promise she made to her dad at his bedside — albeit after it seemed their dad was already gone.
"We never even got to say good-bye," Burlingame said. "We feel that they stole that from us"