December 21, 2014

Husband’s treatment prompts wrongful death lawsuit

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Gerald Warmbier, 71, died Aug. 14, 2013 at Carle Foundation Hospital. His wife, Judy, filed a lawsuit against Heartland of Champaign this year.

News-Gazette contributed photo.

Gerald Warmbier, 71, died Aug. 14, 2013 at Carle Foundation Hospital. His wife, Judy, filed a lawsuit against Heartland of Champaign this year.

After being admitted to the nursing home Heartland of Champaign to recover from a hospital stay for chest pain last year, Gerald Warmbier’s health rapidly deteriorated.

Just days after entering the nursing home in May, he became “very sleepy” and unresponsive, Illinois Department of Public Health inspection reports noted. As a result, he was sent to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where he slowly started recovering after a little more than a week.

With signs of improved health, the hospital released Warmbier back to Heartland, court and state inspection documents show.

During the next three months, the state health department reports stated his weight dropped by about 30 pounds, and he twice developed the highly contagious stomach illness clostridium difficile – known as C. diff. He stopped getting out of bed, his urine became thick and dark, and his voice dropped “almost to a whisper.”

On Aug. 5, Heartland sent Warmbier to Carle’s emergency department, where he died at the age of 71 nine days later. This May, his wife filed a lawsuit against Heartland, alleging the nursing home’s negligence was ultimately fatal.

The Champaign nursing home did not respond to several calls and emails for comment on Warmbier’s care or the lawsuit. The facility also did not reply to a certified letter.

“Gerald had the secret to life,” his wife, Judy, said through her lawyer, Ryan Yagoda. “He was never into materialistic things.”

In retirement, Warmbier spent much of his free time caring for animals and “was instrumental in helping to fund causes so the lives of many animals could be better,” his obituary said. Those causes included helping to look after the Prairie Land Anti-Cruelty program, which his wife founded. Warmbier had been a former News-Gazette photographer and University of Illinois employee.

Warmbier was a father of two, a husband for 51 years and grandfather of two. He was a man who loved to tell jokes.

He also was a survivor of a 2008 kidney transplant, which meant his fluid intake had to be monitored carefully when in the hospital and nursing home.

Warmbier’s case was one of nine that CU-CitizenAccess.org discovered during a review of lawsuits filed against Champaign County nursing homes since 2009.

The wrongful death complaint filed in the Circuit Court of Champaign County listed nearly two dozen different ways the nursing home’s inadequate care led to his death, including the failure to “provide proper and adequate hydration.” The complaint also stated the nursing home left Warmbier in a room with a patient who had C. diff, and that the facility failed to give Warmbier one of his necessary medications for more than a week.

Heartland denied the allegations in a court filing.

A health department complaint-based inspection dated Aug. 22, 2013 supported many of the claims against Heartland. It stated that Heartland failed to “provide each resident with sufficient fluid to maintain proper hydration,” and that it failed to ensure “residents are free of any significant medication errors.”

Furthermore, although a physician ordered Warmbier’s intake and output of fluids to be monitored, there is no evidence that Heartland did so. In fact, according to the inspection report, Heartland administration “crossed out” the order as “discounted.” The day after Warmbier had died, a Heartland employee is noted as reporting the nursing home “does not do [intake and output monitoring], as per corporate policy.”

Court records show that Judy Warmbier is now seeking damages against Heartland to “fairly and adequately compensate” the family for “injuries, losses and damages” associated with Warmbier’s death.

The main violations, according to Yagoda, were the failures to monitor Warmbier’s fluids, to keep him away from a patient with a contagious illness and to administer proper medication. The case is its early stages, though, and a verdict is still a long ways away from litigation, he said.

“The key violations in this case are basically three things, and you sort of see these same complaints throughout all nursing home cases, plus a couple extras,” said Yagoda, a trial lawyer for the Chicago-based firm Kralovec, Jambois and Schwartz.

Warmbier’s wife said she “misses everything” about her husband, who she met while working at the News-Gazette. She will especially miss weekend trips to St. Louis, as those were “some of her favorite memories.”