By Alan Prendergast
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Trapped inside a place where people come to die, John Gordy waits and watches. His athletic six-foot-five-inch frame is dead weight. Gordy has just enough use of his contorted right hand to control his electric wheelchair. The slender black man in his early forties is handsome despite his cracked front teeth, remnants of an injury he received while living at the Red Rocks Healthcare Center. All around him, Gordy sees people waiting for death. All he wants is to make it out alive.
Gordy wasn't always paralyzed. In August 2000, he was riding his bike and fell headfirst over the handlebars into a shallow pond. The accident cost him the use of his arms and legs.
After his fall, Gordy was hospitalized and spent some time in rehabilitation. His girlfriend tried to care for him, but it was too much pressure, and she abandoned him. He had no family members who were able to help him full-time, and no money to afford in-home assistance, so he was left to find a nursing home that would accept his Medicaid coverage. In 2002 he was admitted to the Red Rocks facility on East Jewell Avenue. Right away, things started going wrong. Though Red Rocks' advertising promised excellence in wound care, Gordy felt like he had to train every new aide who walked into his room. And because of constant turnover, there were many. An ulcer on his foot was ignored to the point of needing surgery. Twice. He almost died after being given the wrong antibiotic. He was forced to lie helpless, despite his protests, as a hot towel scalded the flesh of his chest, leaving him with second-degree burns -- an attempt to warm him when the heat at the facility was broken. But nothing was as bad as the nighttime. Gordy's call light was his only defense in an emergency, but it took aides hours to answer. One night he was left near the side of his bed, with the bed rail down. As he felt himself sliding toward the edge, he yelled out for help, knowing it would only be a matter of time before he fell. He screamed all night, but no one came. At the 6 a.m. shift change, someone finally checked on him; just as the aide entered the room, Gordy crashed off the bed and landed on his face, smashing his teeth.
It was an employee of the non-profit Denver Regional Council of Governments ombudsman program who finally put Gordy in contact with a lawyer. As an advocate for nursing-home residents, she frequented Red Rocks. When she discovered Gordy's suffering, she called the best nursing-home malpractice attorney she knew, asking if he would meet with Gordy and his younger brother, Stevie. "I'm going to help you, John," the woman told Gordy. "You've been through enough."
"I could ask Jesus," Jerome "Jay" Reinan says as he motions toward the hot-pink plastic statue standing on his desk. The Messiah functions like a Magic 8 Ball for Reinan, one he regularly calls upon for comic guidance. "I've got the wind-up nun, too. There's a lawyer who used to be in this office who's an ex-nun. Somebody gave that to me because I had a case against her when I was doing defense work."
The Denver lawyer, who spends his days fighting for abused and neglected clients such as John Gordy, wasn't always on the side of right. He used to work for what he calls "the dark side," defending corporate nursing homes against such claims. "I was probably one of the primary nursing-home defense lawyers in the state before I switched over," he says matter-of-factly. "I think I tried several at a time when no one else was trying nursing-home cases." Reinan fumbles through the piles of books and papers haphazardly strewn about his corner office in the Highland neighborhood, looking for an old copy of Newsweek, a relic from his past life. "God, that was '98. Holy shit. Time flies. Look at my bad quote in there."
Reinan opens the magazine to a story on the rising number of nursing-home suits across the country. "What's going on?" the story asks, after the author has listed record verdicts and informed readers that the first-ever class-action lawsuit against a nursing-home chain will begin in Denver the following year. Reinan was defending that company -- the same one he's now suing for Gordy.
"Plaintiff lawyers, who are flocking to the field, say the suits reflect shoddy care, a judgment rejected by the industry. But both sides agree that some aging baby boomers -- guilty about their parents' living in nursing homes and worried that they will be next -- seem quicker to sue, and jurors seem more willing to dish out big verdicts. 'There are a lot of families out there who are trying to project their own guilt onto nursing homes,' says Jerome Reinan, a Denver defense lawyer."
Reinan's callous lawyering didn't stem from a family of litigators. He's the son of a Lutheran Brotherhood insurance salesman, and he grew up in Otter Tail County, Minnesota, a community his father referred to as a "Republican oasis amidst a DFL [Democratic-Farmer-Labor party] desert." His was a second-generation immigrant family of Norwegians, and the young Reinan had much nobler ambitions than practicing law.