Most physicians go through their entire careers without ever running afoul of state regulators. But two years after a 26-year-old inmate with chronic kidney problems died while under his care, prison doctor David M. Oba has received a sharply worded letter of admonition from the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) for care and treatment deemed to be "below the generally accepted standards of practice for a physician" -- the second such disciplinary action DORA has taken against Oba.
On October 28, 2010, Terrell Griswold was found slumped over and unresponsive in his cell in the Bent County Correctional Facility, a private prison in southeastern Colorado. Griswold was serving a three-year sentence for burglary and had made numerous complaints over several months to medical personnel regarding problems urinating.
The official autopsy report states that Griswold died of an enlarged heart. But as first reported in Westword last year, Griswold's family eventually obtained medical records that indicated his cardiac issues may have been one of several complications related to a nodule in his prostate that was blocking his urinary tract, a condition known as obstructive uropathy.
Griswold's mother, Lagalia Afola, has maintained that Oba and the private prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America, failed to adequately respond to a treatable condition. "I know they are responsible for my son's death," she told me last year. "All they needed to do was get a catheter in him."
Prison medical records indicate that a week before his death, Griswold had complained of dizziness, abdominal pain, soaring blood pressure and other symptoms that he believed were related to prostate problems. Oba was notified by phone but didn't actually examine Griswold that day, or as his condition worsened over the next six days. Instead, he wrote a prescription for antibiotics to treat a possible urinary tract infection.
In a letter issued eight weeks ago admonishing Oba -- now a public document, since Oba declined to appeal the ruling -- a state medical board of inquiry chaired by J. Dale Utt declared that Oba's conduct fell below acceptable standards: "Specifically, although patient T.G. had a history of poorly-controlled hypertension, urinary problems, and elevated serum creatinine levels, you failed to recognize and take appropriate action in connection with the signs and symptoms of chronic kidney disease."
A letter of admonition has no effect in itself on a physician's ability to practice medicine, but it can be "entered into evidence as aggravation" if a subsequent complaint against the doctor leads to a possible license revocation proceeding.
Yet Griswold's death isn't the first time a state board of inquiry has found Oba's care and treatment deserving of admonishment. A similar letter was issued in 1996 in response to a 1991 evaluation of an intoxicated, injured patient in the emergency room of a Pueblo hospital. On that occasion, the panel found that Oba failed to wait until the patient was sober before performing a neurological exam, failed to properly document the exam and failed to monitor the patient in accordance with accepted standards of care.
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Oba, who still works for CCA's Bent County facility, didn't respond to a request for comment about the agency's latest action. Afola, though, continues to press for further investigation of the medical care available to prisoners at CCA's private lockup.
"Urinary obstruction is a medical emergency," she notes. "Yet my son was allowed to suffer, in pain, vomiting, and blood pressure rising -- this after a diagnosis was made of urinary obstruction. My son kept trying to raise the alarm, but nurses and Dr. Oba refused to evaluate him or send him to the ER. I am a thousand percent convinced that had Dr. David Oba or any of the [Bent County Correctional Facility] nurses cared enough to provide care -- just five minutes of their time to insert a two-dollar catheter into Terrell's bladder -- my son would be alive today."
More from our Prison Life archive: "Terrell Griswold: Mother questions inmate's "natural" death in private prison."