After spending a lifetime picking vegetables in the fields of Belle Glade, Eva Mae Rhodes died a painful death at age 98 after workers at a West Palm Beach nursing home left her outside unattended where she blistered and baked in Florida’s sun, her granddaughter said Tuesday.
Saying she wants to make sure other infirmed elderly people don’t suffer a similar fate, Candace McKinley filed a lawsuit against Lakeside Health Center, claiming its neglect led to her grandmother’s death last year.
“The message I want to send is we will not tolerate the abuse of our elderly,” McKinley told reporters shortly before the 55-page lawsuit was filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. “I’m mortified that nothing more has been done.”
Called to investigate after Rhodes was brought to St. Mary’s Medical Center on May 27 with a temperature of 103.2 degrees, suffering from heat stroke, severe dehydration and second-degree burns on her shoulders, arms and mouth, an investigator for the Florida Department of Children and Families concluded inadequate supervision was to blame.
After Rhodes died two weeks later, the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner listed her cause of death as “hyperthermia” caused by exposure to the sun and heat.
But attorney Darla Keen, who is representing McKinley, said she can find no evidence that either the nursing home or its workers have been held accountable for Rhodes’ death.
DCF spokeswoman DaMonica Smith said the agency concluded its investigation before Rhodes died. They turned it over to West Palm Beach police, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office and the Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates nursing homes.
West Palm Beach police said their investigation is ongoing. Officials at the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office said they need police to find evidence of a crime before they can act.
No one from the Health Care Administration returned an email for comment and neither did an attorney for Lakeside Health Center, which is owned by nursing home giant Life Care Centers of America.
According to the DCF report, no one knows how long Rhodes was left outside. One worker said she noticed Rhodes sitting on the patio at 11 a.m. At 12:37 a.m., paramedics were called after she was brought inside, near death.
“Her shoulders were sunburned and blistered,” DCF investigator Janice Elliott wrote. “They are horrible. She fainted and she was unresponsive when she was found.”
When interviewed, Amy Saayman, executive director of Lakeside, said Rhodes, who used a wheelchair, was capable of going and in and out by herself. Further, Saayman suggested, Rhodes’ health problems may have been an allergic reaction to something paramedics gave her on the way to the hospital, Elliott wrote.
While noting Saayman’s theories, Elliott offered a different description of Rhodes’ abilities. “Victim is a 98-year-old female suffering from advance dementia, physical limitations and the infirmities of aging which impedes her ability to provide for her own care and protections,” she wrote. “Victim is nonverbal. Victim requires full assistance with (activities of daily life).”
McKinley, 52, of West Palm Beach, was raised by her grandmother. She said she is haunted by her death.
“When I was young, she took care of me and I trusted her,” she said. “The roles turned and she trusted me to take care of her, and I failed.”