Longform

Ken McGill left jail behind, but he can't escape the stroke he suffered there

Jen McCracken was watching television when the phone rang that evening. The call was from the Jefferson County Detention Facility, where her husband, Ken McGill, had been incarcerated since July for a DUI. Ken would often call from the jail, leaving her short, sweet messages when she wasn't around, asking about her day when she was. But this call was different.

"I think I had a stroke today," he said. Ken didn't sound right; his voice was quiet and slurred, tinged with fear and confusion. "I need you to help me."

"How am I going to help you? You're in jail, Ken!" Jen yelled frantically into the phone. She was miles away in Denver — and since she'd worked as a correctional officer at Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, she knew how the system worked. From the outside, there was nothing she could do.

"I need you to call them, Jen, and tell them something is wrong," Ken begged. "I keep telling them; they keep taking me downstairs, and it's not doing anything."

"Tell them you need to go to the hospital," said Jen again and again during the conversation, which was taped, as the jail does routinely with all phone calls (it saves the tapes for two years, in case they're relevant in criminal matters). "Obviously, they can tell by the way you're talking something is wrong."

Ken's response was unintelligible, tangled in his throat. "I can't understand a word you are saying," Jen told him.

Ken tried again, slower: "Something. Is. Really. Wrong."

"When did this start?" she asked anxiously.

"This morning, at eight o'clock." Ken struggled with the words. "And all day it's been getting worse and worse. I can't feel the whole right side of my body now. And I can't even talk. I am scared to death."

"They need to take you to the emergency room," Jen told him. "Why don't you say, 'I think I am having a stroke. I can't feel the whole right side of my body.'

"The hospital is literally around the corner," she continued, thinking of St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood. "They have to call the fucking ambulance for you."

"Hold on," said Ken. "Hold on." Then he was gone.

"Hello, hello?" A new voice was on the line, one of the other inmates. "This is Vance. I came in with Ken. Um, something is wrong with him." Then Vance Goetz was gone, too. Over the phone, Jen could make out the muffled sounds of activity and Ken crying. "I think he had a stroke," she heard Goetz telling someone, followed by more commotion. "Can somebody help me over here?!" Goetz yelled. "I need help! Help!"

Then Goetz was back: "The nurse is here now." He took down Jen's number and told her, "If I hear something, I will let you know."

And just like that, the call was over. Jen tried to convince herself that everything would be all right. "He will get the help he needs," she remembers telling herself. "He is with the right people, and they will do the right thing."

See also: Read the lawsuit from the inmate who suffered stroke in jail and wasn't treated for 24 hours

*********

Ken McGill's problems had started that morning, while he was working his inmate job as a member of the kitchen staff. Just after they'd finished preparing breakfast, he began feeling dizzy, the room spinning so badly he could hardly balance.

Ken wasn't used to feeling sick. The strapping, six-foot-three 44-year-old had played competitive soccer for more than twenty years and liked to ski moguls. Nor was he the kind of inmate to make up stuff to cause trouble. Fellow prisoners describe him as an earnest, friendly guy who fit in easily among the eighty men in his low-security jail unit, most of whom were incarcerated for drinking offenses and other fairly minor crimes. Ken was keeping his head low, doing his time, counting the days until his expected release in mid-November.

When the dizziness didn't subside, Ken requested to go to the jail's medical clinic. His kitchen supervisor asked if he could wait until after lunch, and Ken agreed. He'd always been a hard worker. Growing up in Morrison, he'd barely graduated from high school, but then he started driving heavy equipment for construction companies — "You just play with real, live Tonka trucks all day long," he'd later say — and worked his way to upper management, preparing bids for multimillion-dollar jobs around the metro area.

Yes, he'd gotten into trouble with the law, including a couple of DUIs in the late '80s and early '90s. But he was struggling with abandonment issues, which he'd had since he'd learned he was adopted; it didn't help that when Ken turned eighteen, his adoptive parents sold their house, bought an RV, and set him up alone in an apartment while they traveled the country. "I felt rebellious," Ken says of that period. "I felt like I didn't have any direction."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner