Longform

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

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Looking at him, both Goetz and Renteria agreed. "I worked as a dialysis tech," says Renteria. "I knew the signs and symptoms of heart attacks and stroke. Everyone knows one side of your body goes limp, and you notice the speech changing."

"I knew something was wrong," agrees Goetz. "I am not a doctor, but you know. And when he stood up and started walking with one leg dragging, I really knew it."

But when Renteria tried to alert the deputies, he was told to wait for the nurse, who would be by soon to hand out meds for the evening. In the meantime, Ken was deteriorating. Waves of extreme dizziness and pain began washing over him, and after each one, his body seemed slightly less functional than before. His right arm began curling in on itself. He couldn't focus on what was going on around him in the common area; his mind couldn't process what was happening in the Broncos game on the TV. And the right side of his face was numb. "It felt like my face was hanging off of my skull," he says.

He focused on contacting his wife. "If I can get to Jen, she can get some help," he remembers thinking. Goetz helped him to the jailhouse phone, but when he reached Jen, it was as if his brain was stuck in first gear. He kept repeating that he needed help, but he couldn't carry on a conversation, couldn't grasp what she was telling him. Some of his words wouldn't come out at all. Suddenly, he was no longer talking to her; he was on the floor. While Goetz got on the phone to talk with Jen, a deputy and a nurse helped Ken into a wheelchair and took him back down to the medical clinic.

Ken told the charge nurse there that he thought he was having a stroke. She ran a couple of tests and then said that he was just experiencing an anxiety attack. She gave him Gatorade and sent him back to his unit to sleep, noting that he "walked around in [the] clinic with no issue or complication." But at that point he could barely walk, Ken says, and needed a wheelchair to make it back upstairs.

Because of his dizzy spells, Ken was moved from his upper bunk to an open lower bunk in another part of the unit. While he lay in bed, girding himself for the next wave of pain and dizziness, the man in the next bed introduced himself as Mike, and said he had been a licensed emergency medical technician. "I've been watching you all night," Mike told Ken, and then walked him through his own, informal series of neurological tests. The results — the right side of Ken's face appearing flaccid, his right hand demonstrating a much weaker grip, one pupil far more dilated than the other — left little doubt in his mind, Mike says now: "These were classic signs of what I would say is a stroke."

"You are a human being," Mike remembers telling Ken. (He asked that his last name not be used because of ongoing legal matters.) "You need to stand up, and you need to scream that you need to be seen by a doctor."

Ken didn't seem able to do that — so Mike did it on his behalf. He got out of bed and approached a deputy, risking punishment for being up and about after evening lockdown. "Ken is in bad shape," he said. "I think he is having a stroke."

"Who the fuck are you?" replied the deputy. "Are you a doctor?"

"I was an emergency medical technician," said Mike. "This is a dire medical situation. This man needs a doctor now."

Finally, the deputy relented. For the fourth time that day, Ken was taken down to the medical clinic.

He would never return to the unit.

*********

Back in the medical clinic, Ken did what his wife and Mike had told him to do: In tears, he insisted he was having a stroke, demanded to see a doctor, demanded to go to the hospital. As a nurse would write in his medical chart, he told them that "it feels like my whole [right] side is dead."

It's just an anxiety attack, the nurses kept telling him as he spent the next several hours on a gurney in an observation room. In his medical records, they noted that his pupils seemed normal, his grips were equal, his speech was "slowed, not slurred," his gait was "guarded," and that he didn't have a headache. When Ken told them he couldn't swallow the Gatorade he'd been given, one of nurses poured out the liquid and told him to use his finger to scrape out and eat the sugary residue left in the cup. When he said he needed help getting to the bathroom, he was told that wasn't their job, that he could manage it on his own.

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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