Longform

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

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He found it when he met Jen in 1993. They've been together ever since, and he raised as his own the son she already had, helping Jen deal with the young boy's bipolar disorder. One time, when the child was eight, he lashed out so violently — stabbing his teacher with a pencil and attacking his babysitter — that in desperation, Ken slapped him. "I don't know if anything else would have helped in that situation," says Ken. "He was out of control." But his stepson's teachers noticed the mark on his face, and Ken ended up with a misdemeanor child-abuse charge.

And the DUI charge that ultimately led him to be locked up in Jefferson County jail? In early 2011, he went out one night to celebrate winning a big construction bid. He gave his car keys to a designated driver, but at some point in the revelry he wound up with the keys again. A cop pulled him over a block from the house in Lakewood where he and Jen were living at the time. As a multiple DUI offender, in January 2012 he was sentenced to Jefferson County's one-year Inmate/Outmate Program. He spent a couple months in jail before getting out as part of a supervised release program, and he applied for a new driver's license so he could work. While a loophole in the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles allowed that license to be approved, his case manager didn't like it: As part of the release program, he wasn't supposed to be driving. So in July Ken was sent back to jail, to spend the rest of his sentence, minus good-conduct time, behind bars.

Which is why he was in the kitchen of the Jefferson County jail on September 17, 2012, the room spinning around him — and the spinning continued to get worse. Finally, after the lunch shift was over, a correctional worker took Ken to the medical clinic in the jail's basement. The facility was staffed around the clock by a half-dozen nurses and a charge nurse; there was also a physician's assistant there during the day and a doctor who came in several times a week. All of them worked for Correctional Healthcare Companies (CHC), the Greenwood Village-based company that oversees medical care for the 1,200 to 1,300 inmates typically housed in the jail — as well as facilities in many other states.

Like many jails and prisons around the country, Jefferson County's has turned to the private sector to help keep down health-care costs for inmate populations that are both growing and aging: According to the ACLU, the number of inmates 55 or older has increased by 1,300 percent since the 1980s. "They have been providing medical care [at the jail] since 2003, and we have been pleased with their work during the entire ten-year relationship," says Jefferson County Sheriff's Office spokesman Mark Techmeyer of CHC, which is currently paid $4,274,000 a year by the county for its services. (Prior to contracting with CHC, Jefferson County used Prison Health Services, the country's largest correctional medical company; before that, the county ran the jail's medical clinic itself.)

When he went to the clinic that afternoon, one of the CHC nurses looked Ken over and told him the doctor would see him when he visited the jail the next day. Ken was likely just dehydrated, she told him, and she sent him back to his unit with instructions to drink water and get some rest. Ken did as he was told, taking a nap on his bunk, but when he awoke a few hours later, the dizziness was worse and he had a horrible headache that was spreading down his neck. Walking down the stairs in his unit, Ken had to hold the railing with both hands — and on the bottom step, he slipped and fell.

The deputy on duty took him back to the medical clinic in a wheelchair. This time, Ken saw the physician's assistant, who told him the culprit was likely a migraine accompanied by vertigo. Ken was given medicine for his headache and the dizziness, then returned to his unit. While he was sitting in the common area a little after 7 p.m., everything went from bad to worse. "That's when my body started changing," says Ken. "I could feel my face starting to droop. I was able to control my right side a lot less than my left side."

By now, it was clear to others that something was wrong. Two of Ken's friends in the unit, Vance Goetz and Gilbert Renteria, approached and asked if he was okay. "I think I am having a stroke," Ken told them, slurring his words. The realization came to him like puzzle pieces clicking into place. "My body was screaming at me, 'You are having a stroke!'" he remembers.

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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