Did Denver Health Turn Away Woman Left Bloody From 16th Street Mall Stabbing?

Editor's note: This post is the third in a three-part series about violence on the 16th Street Mall. Access part one by clicking "Inside the Bloody Stabbing on the 16th Street Mall You Haven't Heard About." Access part two by clicking "Denver's Top Block for Arrests and an Advocate's Take on 16th Street Mall Safety."

On June 18, as we've reported, Arvada's Erin Chalmers visited the 16th Street Mall with the goal of people-watching — checking out the folks drawn to the area by events such as Denver Comic Con, Denver PrideFest and the Denver Greek Festival.

But she got considerably more than she expected.

Chalmers wound up using a stranger's T-shirt to stem the blood flow from a stab wound in Gregory Lecorps, who was subsequently arrested, along with Damian Dominguez, following yet another violent act on the mall.

But there's more to Chalmers's story of that night. A police officer advised her to get her own blood drawn to make sure she hadn't contracted something from Lecorps, and when she attempted to do so at Denver Health, she wound up so upset and concerned that she has consulted a lawyer.

A Denver Health doctor insists that Chalmers wasn't refused treatment — something that wouldn't have been legal. Nevertheless, the episode demonstrates how violence on the mall can have ripple effects that go well beyond the incident itself.

"As a good Samaritan, you never know what you're going to do until you get into a situation like that," says Chalmers about her decision to help Lecorps, who lost consciousness just prior to the arrival of emergency personnel; she was uncertain if he was dead or alive until the publication of our first report. "And it didn't even occur to me that this might be a homeless kid who could have been involved in risky behavior."

The thought crossed the mind of a cop on the scene, however.

"I was covered in blood, and a Denver police officer said, 'Go to the emergency room and get checked out. Tell them you were covered in blood and want to be tested for any bloodborne illnesses.'"

Chalmers, who had come to the 16th Street Mall area with her sister, agreed and headed to Denver Health — the closest major hospital to the 16th Street Mall and the one to which she understood Lecorps would be transported. This last factor struck her as important, since she thought it would be a simple matter to compare his blood to hers in order to determine if she was in danger of a serious infection.

But simple, it wasn't.

At the Denver Health emergency room, Chalmers says, a nurse "told me it wasn't an emergency — that because I didn't have any obvious open wounds, I would be okay." According to her, she was advised to see her primary-care physician in the coming days, but that wasn't possible. "I'm unemployed, and I don't have health insurance," she notes.

"On the way home, I was uneasy," Chalmers goes on, "so I stopped at the Lutheran emergency room, and they said, 'We need to see you, and you need to talk to a physician, because this could be a serious emergency situation.' And they also told me that the fact that I was turned away at Denver Health is illegal and unethical and that I should call a supervisor."

She did so in the coming days, and she maintains that she got much the same response as she had during her Saturday night visit to the Denver Health emergency room. "She said, 'There's nothing we can really do. Doctors get covered with blood and we don't do any testing,' which I know is bullshit; I have friends who are paramedics. So she basically blew me off — just said I shouldn't worry about it."

A different version of events is provided by Dr. Christopher Colwell, chief of emergency medicine at Denver Health, who was provided with an account of the encounter from the nurse who spoke to Chalmers.

The nurse said Chalmers told her "she had been exposed to some blood from a victim and police advised her to come in to have some blood drawn," Colwell recounts. "The nurse didn't see any blood on the woman. But she said, 'Were there any open wounds or did it contact any mucous membranes — get in the mouth or eyes?' And the response to her questions was that there weren't any open wounds and there was no contact with mucous membranes. So the nurse said, 'Generally, here's what we do in these situations. There's not an immediate need to draw blood and institute treatment, and blood can be drawn through public health — and we have numbers for that. Or you can have it done by a primary-care physicians, and here are some options for that.' And the woman said, 'She didn't have a primary-care physician.' The nurse then asked, 'Do you have insurance that has an officially designated primary-care physician? Because we can give you someone to call. Or otherwise, we can give you some other numbers as well. There are options for you.'

"But at that point, from the nurse's perspective, the woman became frustrated and left before they were able to complete any further information or instructions."

Did the nurse do anything wrong? Colwell doesn't think so, based on the stories he's heard from both sides.

"It is absolutely consistent with the options we would have laid out," he says. "Now, it is important to be clear. This woman appears to believe that she was being refused care, and we will never refuse somebody care. If they want to be seen, they will be seen — but we may not necessarily do what a patient wants in every situation. There may be times when a patient will come in and say, 'I want to have the following tests done' — but if there isn't a medical reason for it based on the information we have, we may not do that.

"We have quite a few situations with employees who have had needle sticks or potential contacts with blood and mucous membranes," Colwell continues, "and the hospital has a policy that if there are no open wounds or opportunity of entry through the skin, this is something that can be done by a primary-care physician or the office of public health. We don't generally draw blood in those cases, and if I had seen her, I would have told her the same thing, since the risk was very low."

Besides, Colwell says, "the only reason to draw blood at that point would be to test to see if you already had a disease. I got a needle stick about six months ago, and I had my blood drawn by my primary-care physician just to make sure I didn't have HIV or hepatitis C. But if I had contracted those from exposure, we wouldn't have known for the next 48 to 72 hours."

Colwell doesn't shrug off Chalmers's complaints. "I do very much regret the fact that it sounds like she got the impression we wouldn't treat her," he stresses. "Not only do we not believe in that, but we do not do that. We're not legally allowed to do that, and we're not going to refuse or turn away anybody. But we may talk about other options and the medical indications under the circumstances — and we try to come up with a mutually agreeable plan. It sounds like we didn't do this to her satisfaction, and I certainly apologize for that. But from every indication I have, it sounds like it was very appropriate for the nurse to tell her what other options she might have."

Be that as it may, Chalmers remains unnerved by what took place after she came to Lecorps's aid.

"It wasn't like I'd gotten blood on me from my sister after she'd gotten cut, because she's somebody I know doesn't engage in risky behavior," she says. "But this looked like a homeless kid, a transient. So to have something like this happen...and they weren't even busy, which I found surprising considering everything that was going on over the weekend. So I'm actually in touch with an attorney. I'm not going to do anything crazy, but I want to let people know how Denver Health treated me so they can improve their process going forward."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts