Suicide Mission

"My responsibility is to determine cause and manner of death when a case falls under the jurisdiction of the Coroner's Office but I did feel uncomfortable about the evaluation process in this case and wanted to share some of my thoughts with you."

Eighteen hours after John Sheron was judged not to be a suicide risk, released and sent home with the wife who'd told staffers she was "overwhelmed," he succeeded in killing himself. He was dead before Mary Lee Sheron could even get him the counseling appointment Vernon had suggested.

The rest of Vernon's jovial instructions were so inappropriate, given Sheron's condition, that Harper took the highly unusual step of writing Lutheran. Now Lutheran's lawyers would like to keep that letter out of the record. Harper is an expert on dead bodies, not live ones, they say, and so she's "not qualified to render an opinion."

The plaintiff's main argument, of course, is that Vernon was not qualified to render an opinion on John Sheron, either, and that West Pines and Lutheran, for whatever reason--convenience, the economics of health care in the Nineties--didn't call in anyone who was. In the process, the suit claims, the defendants violated the Colorado Psychiatric Technicians Act, which requires individuals to attend "an accredited psychiatric technician educational program" and be licensed by the Colorado Board of Nursing before they can conduct the type of evaluation Vernon was called on to provide for John Sheron.

Vernon is not a licensed psychiatric technician. Although she has years of experience working at mental-health facilities, she has just a bachelor's degree. And while West Pines had a psychiatrist on call, Vernon did not contact her or any other clinical psychologist, psychiatric nurse or qualified individual, "in contravention of the defendants' own internal hospital protocol," the plaintiff argues. Instead, she assessed John Sheron not to be a suicide risk and let him go home.

"If you believe there is such a thing as mental health or psychiatry or psychiatric illness or depression," Dr. Steven Dubovsky, vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and one of the plaintiff's experts, testified in a deposition, "then you would say this man did not kill himself. He did not make a valid, competent decision to kill himself. He was driven to suicide by untreated depression, and by unrecognized risk in the emergency room where they let him go. I think if anybody made the decision for him to kill himself it was Janice Vernon and the Lutheran ER staff by not recognizing that he had an acute illness...by not recognizing and acting on that, they are the ones who let him die."

This would not play in Peoria, and it should not play here.

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