Hidden Damage

Page 6 of 12

In April 1998, a year after the accident, McClelland joins her mother, sister and others at a LoDo bar to celebrate a relative's birthday. She's always been a light drinker, and no one pays much attention when she lingers as the party breaks up. She is found hours later in Castle Rock. Her car is eleven miles away. She has no idea of where she is or how she got there, and her blood-alcohol level is above the legal limit. Her doctors suspect she may have had a seizure, the result of an interaction between her epilepsy medication and alcohol.

Two months later, McClelland tells her therapist that she's thinking about killing herself by overdosing on her medications. She had taken on a new job as a receptionist that spring and failed miserably. She'd also tried to volunteer at a hospital, spent all the money she had on a uniform, and then was told at the last minute that she'd need a doctor's release before she could proceed. She's moved out of her mother's house and is living in her ex-husband's sister's basement and feels like she is a burden on everybody she knows.

"I had no income and wasn't taking care of my kids very well," she recalls. "It was everything. Not having groceries. Being too embarrassed to tell people. Losing jobs. And my EMT [emergency medical technician] license was about to expire."

The therapist persuades her to check into a psychiatric hospital for several days. It's the beginning of a turning point in her treatment, but the road is a long one. Seven months later, she returns to the hospital for help battling her growing dependence on Dilaudid, a powerful narcotic that had been prescribed as a temporary painkiller for her migraines.

"I was shocked that they had started her on something so strong," says Janet Morgan, who'd worked as a substance-abuse counselor in an outpatient clinic and saw the telltale signs of addiction surfacing in her own daughter. "We talked about how she would need to go into treatment. We saw it all the time at work, how everyday working people would have to detox off prescribed medication."

McClelland emerges from rehab clean but hurting. "I didn't feel better, by any means," she recalls. "I was in a lot of pain. It's like when people stop drinking. It was a lot easier to take drugs and not care, not have to deal with pain management."

During his client's stay at the psychiatric hospital, "every moment of her life was documented for State Farm to look at," Gold notes. "Once I saw the psychiatric records, I knew we had an epic battle on our hands."

The Gantlet

To evaluate McClelland's claim of accident-related brain injury, State Farm brings in several doctors to examine her, including neurologist Karl Gross, psychiatrist Frederick Miller, orthopedic surgeon Stephen Dinenberg and physical-medicine specialist Angelika Voelkel.

The four doctors are well known to Colorado's personal-injury lawyers. All four have worked with State Farm for years and have testified in court on behalf of the company on numerous occasions. "That's the equivalent of a State Farm dream team," Gold says.

Gross's report challenges the finding of traumatic epilepsy. He doubts that McClelland's seizures are truly epileptic; they might be the result of "psychological difficulties and personality disorders." Even if the patient does have traumatic epilepsy, he writes, it can't be linked to the auto accident. The impact just wasn't that severe, Gross reasons, and the chiropractor McClelland saw that day ("a trained health-care professional") didn't recognize any head injury. It's more likely that the epilepsy is a coincidence, he concludes.

Miller notes McClelland's history of drug use, including high school experimentation with marijuana and LSD and brief use of cocaine just before she went into rehab. Although her own doctors attribute the April 1998 LoDo-to-Castle Rock blackout to a seizure, Miller believes it was a consequence of substance abuse. He also quizzes McClelland at length about her admission that she was physically abused as a child by her stepfather. Miller's report stops short of suggesting that her odd behavior is due to abuse or drugs, but he, too, regards her seizures as non-epileptic in nature. He calls them "pseudo-seizures" and suggests that they might be some kind of subconscious -- or conscious -- strategy for escaping stressful situations: "What are being called seizures may, in fact, only be dissociative episodes primarily related to the repeated trauma of her youth."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast