Silent Scream

Mute and immobile, Alice Joy Taylor couldn't cry out when fire ants attacked her in her nursing-home bed, but would anyone have heard her if she did?

Lawyers for most of those named in the lawsuit declined to comment on Taylor's case because a trial is pending, they say. Neither the current owners nor those at the nursing home would comment. The owner of the Lewisville pest-control company that serviced the home before the ant attack did not return several telephone calls seeking comment. The trial is scheduled for December in Denton County.

"To me, if people don't take a stand and you sweep things under the rug and you say, 'Oh well, you know, that just happens in nursing homes,' it's going to keep happening," Osborn says. "We have to bring things out into the open to make a difference."

Apparently, she's right. Even those involved in watching nursing homes or those interested in fire ant behavior don't seem to have a common pool of knowledge related to nursing home attacks or ant-induced deaths. Taylor's case wasn't reported in the press, and no experts had heard of her. Another quiet attack took place in Fort Worth the late 1990s, when ants swarmed on an elderly man in a nursing home just as they did on Taylor. The victim's family sued but quietly settled the case last year. Other attacks, even those reported to state agencies, don't get much attention from the press.

Lewisville resident Carolyn Osborn cried after her helpless mother was attacked by fire ants in a nursing home. She's fighting back, she says, so that other nursing home residents aren't subjected to similar fates.
Lewisville resident Carolyn Osborn cried after her helpless mother was attacked by fire ants in a nursing home. She's fighting back, she says, so that other nursing home residents aren't subjected to similar fates.
Lewisville resident Carolyn Osborn cried after her helpless mother was attacked by fire ants in a nursing home. She's fighting back, she says, so that other nursing home residents aren't subjected to similar fates.
Peter Calvin photos
Lewisville resident Carolyn Osborn cried after her helpless mother was attacked by fire ants in a nursing home. She's fighting back, she says, so that other nursing home residents aren't subjected to similar fates.

But, at least some state long-term health care watchdogs may finally be realizing the problem. Mike Merchant, urban entomology specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service in Dallas, traveled to New Orleans last month to talk to state health care regulatory agents from southern states about just how dangerous and traumatic fire ant attacks in nursing homes can be.

The other problems Osborn encountered at the home are pretty much standard for Texas nursing homes, which are plagued by staffing shortages and financial problems, those familiar with the operations say. Nursing home operators complain to legislators that the regulations are too stiff and annual inspections excessive. Beth Ferris, legislative representative for Texas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents in Austin, says even those homes that aren't called "bad" are not very good places to stay. The state inspects the homes annually and will send agents to a home if a serious problem is reported.

"They tell us 10 percent are bad. Even the ones in the middle--the gray area, I call it--people are neglected, they are abused, and a lot of this is because they don't have enough staff to take care of it," she says. "It all boils down to that."

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