Longform

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

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She wasn't going to let that happen. She began calling every area hospital she could think of, even roaming the halls of St. Anthony Hospital near the jail. But there was no sign of Ken — until she received a voice-mail message on Thursday afternoon, three days after she'd last heard from her husband.

"I am okay," Ken said in the same quiet, slurred voice she'd heard during his call that Monday evening. "I am paralyzed on my right side...I can still talk. I am doing okay. I love you. Just hold on, baby." He said he was at Exempla Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge — the one hospital she hadn't thought of. Jen left work and headed straight there. A deputy was posted at the door of Ken's room, but when his back was turned, she slipped inside. She found Ken shackled to a hospital bed, covered in IV tubes and heart-monitor electrodes.

"You don't want to see someone you love in that position," she says. "He looked terrible, like he'd lost so much weight." The right side of his face was drooping, and he couldn't seem to figure out how to put down the sandwich he was holding in order to hug her. He couldn't form the words to say he loved her.

Ken had been transferred to Lutheran from the jail — three hours after the doctor had said he was likely having a stroke. He wasn't taken there in an ambulance; he was shackled and put in the back of a transport van, where he lost his balance and fell off the seat. He remembers one of the deputies in the front laughing at him and saying, "You can quit the charades; you've convinced these people you need an outpatient MRI."

But when they got to the hospital, the MRI proved Ken wasn't faking it. At 12:30 p.m. that day, more than 28 hours after he'd first started experiencing problems, the brain scan confirmed that Ken had suffered a major stroke. When he heard the news, Ken broke out in tears, then turned to the two deputies who'd taken him to the hospital. "I am going to fucking sue you," he said.

The officers guarding Ken refused to let him call his wife because of security concerns; nor would they give him the jail's medical-release form, which would allow them to provide information to Jen. Finally, two days after he'd arrived at Lutheran, he was given a phone to order his lunch from the hospital cafeteria as part of his therapy, and he saw his chance. He called Jen.

Now here she was, hugging him as he lay in the hospital bed — although the guard soon arrived and escorted her out. The next day Ken was transferred to Boulder Community Hospital; again, Jen was not notified. And another week would pass before she heard anything more.

"That's what hurts me the worst," says Ken. "Knowing my family went through two weeks of hell." Finally, on September 27, he refused to continue therapy at Boulder Community Hospital until he was allowed to call Jen. Jail officials relented, and Ken let his wife know where he was. The next day, there was another development: Thanks to Jen's efforts, Jefferson County Judge Verna Carpenter had granted Ken early release.

Ken was free — although he didn't feel like it. "I feel like I got the worst sentence possible," he says. "I feel like I've been served a life sentence."

*********

Ken walks back and forth, back and forth across the floor of the physical-therapy clinic he visits several times a week, slowly tilting his head up and down as he takes each careful step. He's doing this to help recalibrate his internal equilibrium system, since his stroke destroyed part of his brain stem, leaving him with difficulty balancing. For Ken, the therapy isn't easy. He hesitates and stumbles as he puts one foot in front of the other. "I've been really dizzy this week," he tells his physical therapist, Christina Mulholland.

"The day you come in and don't say you're dizzy, I'll do cartwheels," Mulholland replies.

After the session, Ken has an appointment with his doctor to obtain more of the medical patches he wears behind his ear. The patches ease the vertigo he's been dealing with since he first felt dizzy in the jailhouse kitchen last September, but they leave his neck red and irritated.

Dealing with the repercussions of the stroke "has become my full-time job," he says. Along with dizziness and balance problems, he suffers from constant fatigue and has a hard time concentrating; his right arm is plagued by limited motion, weakness and pain. His slurred speech has improved, but he still speaks in a quieter, more hesitant tone. And the once-active skier can't be in the cold for more than a few minutes before it feels like he's freezing.

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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