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Mental health mistreatment results in award

An Oak Harbor woman who was mistreated at a Skagit County mental health treatment center after being involuntarily committed recently won a $103,000 jury award.

For Diana Sandritter and her attorneys, the verdict comes not just as a victory of the little guy (or girl) over a mega-corporation, but an indictment of, and warning about, a local mental health system that wields great power over the most vulnerable of people.

Even if the case involved an “isolated incident,” as the defense attorney claims, it has still prompted a Whidbey Island counselor to begin looking into why there wasn’t any response by either Compass Health — the plaintiff in the trial — or the county mental health community after the allegations originally came to light.

It’s a story that starts out like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and ends with “Erin Brockovich.”

“When this woman was down,” Sandritter’s attorney, Deborah Truitt, said in her closing arguments, “they kicked her in the teeth.”

Back in October of 1997, Sandritter — who was then Diana Linares — was going through a dark time in her life. In a period of depression fueled by alcohol, she attempted to kill herself and ended up at Whidbey General Hospital. A mental health professional decided to involuntarily commit Sandritter after an evaluation. She was transported to Northsound Evaluation and Treatment Center in Skagit County.

It’s important to note that neither the mental health professional at the hospital nor the transport van people who brought Sandritter to the treatment center felt it was necessary for her to be restrained. Sandritter was so calm that she slept on the way.

Yet at Northsound, the nurse in charge of admitting made Sandritter strip completely in front of male staff members and the male van transporters. A male hospital attendant was staring through a window.

Sandritter said she objected to stripping all the way because she was having her period and felt very embarrassed and humiliated. She had been gang raped when she was younger. But the nurse barked commands at her to undress and then gave her a pad, but no way to use it in a hospital gown.

The nurse then put Sandritter into four-point restraints, with her wrists handcuffed and legs tightly shackled, despite the objection of the van driver. She was then placed in a padded, locked room for nearly eight hours. They drugged her when she complained that she wanted a blanket in the cold room — they refused — and that the restraints hurt.

“I was laying in this room freezing, scared, humiliated, confused,” she said, “bleeding all over myself and crying my eyes out in pain.”

When the nursing shift changed in the morning, the staff released her from the room, let her shower, gave her a cigarette and coffee, then set her free among other patients without any restraints whatsoever.

The driver of the van who witnessed Sandritter’s mistreatment was so appalled that he wrote a strongly-worded letter in protest and faxed it to just about everyone involved in the mental health system in Island County. He never got a response.

The nurse who was in charge that night, an elderly woman, retired weeks afterward.

Sandritter was also released shortly afterward, but she was so traumatized that she started having nightmares and flashbacks. She went to see Coupeville mental health counselor Janice Pickard, but her sense of trust was so shattered it took over a year for her to open up and share what had happened.

Sandritter said she finally decided to seek out an attorney mainly because of her concern for other helpless, confused people who may end up at Northsound. Through four years of litigation, she said it was the memory of the other patients that kept her going. An image of a man talking to a wall, a man tied to a chair, will never leave her.

“Our mental health patients don’t deserve to be treated like animals,” she said. “Hospital are supposed to be loving, caring places.”

Sandritter’s attorneys, Oak Harbor wife-and-husband-team Deborah Truitt and Chris Lyons, knew they had a case from the get-go, but they also knew it was going to be tough.

In going after Northsound Evaluation and Treatment Center, they would be suing health care giant Compass Health. They were up against Reed McClure, a Seattle law firm that specializes in insurance and health care law, representing such corporations as SAFECO, Allstate, State Farm Insurance, and many others.

Compare the two: Truitt & Lyons are two relatively young attorneys in a small office with one secretary. Reed McClure, established in 1890, has 17 attorneys — each has multiple assistants — and is located on the fiftieth floor of the Union Square building in Seattle.

Truitt said the firm “buried” them in paperwork for four years. But after a seven day trial, a jury of six concluded Aug. 28 that Compass Health did violate “the standard of care.” They found that Sandritter was entitled to $4,140 in past economic damages and $99,160 in non-economic damages.

In fact, Truitt said they jury was one member away from a $200,000 judgement.

The central issue of the case, Truitt said, was whether the staff at Northsound violated the “standard of care” dictated under state law. She explained the staff is mandated to use the “least restrictive” means necessary to restrain a person in order to protect that person and others.

In this case, the jury found the staff used all of the most restrictive restraints first — handcuffs, leg shackles, a locked padded room and drugs.

Truitt said the “basic problem” on the night Sandritter was committed was that the staff was short-handed, so immobilizing Sandritter was the easiest way to deal with her. The nurse it charge could have called in more staff members, but she refused, according to Truitt.

“They were doing things to her that were outrageous,” Truitt said, “and they were probably doing these things to other people. That’s just speculation on my part, but it’s not unreasonable speculation.”

In a statement from Marilee Erickson, the attorney who represented Compass Health in the case, she writes that the company “is very disappointed in the jury’s verdict.”

“Compass Health holds clients and staff safety, as well as privacy, of utmost concern,” the statement says. “Compass Health serves nearly 12,000 individuals each year, and this isolated incident occurred almost five years ago. Compass Health continually reviews quality of care in its efforts to improve, and will do so in response to this lawsuit.”

Yet Pickard, Sandritter’s counselor, said she has been waiting all these years for the case to be resolved so she can begin making “inquiries.” Besides being a counselor, she’s also a member of the county advisory board for mental health. She’s not looking into the events of that night, which she said she “I hope was an isolated incident,” but the events surrounding it. Specifically, the lack of any appropriate response or investigation by anyone involved in the system.

“The problem was that no one stepped forward from Compass Health to address the situation initially,” she said. Moreover, no one in the Island County mental health system showed any concern, even after receiving the letter from the Rainbow Van driver.

For Sandritter, life has become much happier in the last five years. She believes “the hand of God” got her through her misery, along with Pickard, Truitt and the van driver — people who she calls her “angels.”

She was greatly relieved by the jury’s verdict, but she said no amount of money can ever make up for “the emotional damage.”

“I’m still concerned about the mental health system. Highly concerned,” she said. “A lot of people out there are in desperate need and I would hate to think someone in need would have to go through something like this ever again.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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