James Lyons was born with sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder. Blood cells are normally round and flexible–with sickle cell anemia, the body also makes rigid, sticky cells shaped like crescents. These rigid, deformed cells catch onto each other, jam up the bloodstream, swell joints, can damage organs and create excruciating pain.
When Mr. Lyons was incarcerated by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) in 2011, the prison doctor cut Mr. Lyons off all of his prescribed pain medications, a common practice in Ohio prisons even in the presence of serious medical need, due to concerns of drug abuse. Meanwhile, Mr. Lyons suffered daily from chronic pain in his joints. Without treatment during acute pain episodes, when bloodstream and joint blockages are especially ferocious, he felt as if his “bones were being crushed.”
In April 2012, OJPC filed a court action seeking a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to require immediate reinstatement of his pain medication. Dr. Richard Bozian, professor emeritus with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and faculty member for 23 years, gave his time and expertise to testify on Mr. Lyons’ behalf. ODRC agreed to reinstate a mild pain reliever to treat Mr. Lyons’ chronic daily pain and to transport Mr. Lyons to the local hospital during acute pain episodes. Although this was a sign of progress, OJPC’s goal is to establish a proper standard of care for all sickle cell anemia patients incarcerated by ODRC.
Dr. Rucknagel, the attending physician at the University of Cincinnati’s Adult Sickle Cell Program, has joined as a medical expert in this case. Over the years, Dr. Rucknagel has worked as an expert witness for both prosecution and defense. “I only do it if I feel good about it,” he says.
Dr. Rucknagel had been treating Mr. Lyons’ sickle cell anemia since childhood. “He was my patient before he went in, but I probably would have taken this case anyway,” said Dr. Rucknagel. “I discovered a long time ago that for sickle cell patients, to be incarcerated is a potential death sentence.” Back in 1995, one of his patients was sent to Chillicothe Correctional. Tragically, after being ignored for two days during a pain crisis, the patient died because of complications that can arise from untreated crises.
Dr. Rucknagel is teaming with OJPC to ensure ODRC honors the agreement for Mr. Lyons’ current care and creates policy for the adequate treatment of sickle cell anemia for incarcerated patients. “One of the basic principles of treatment is don’t do to the patient what you wouldn’t do to yourself. It applies here, to James’s case and to treatment throughout the system.”
For nearly three years, Angelo Robinson suffered from a painful gastrointestinal condition for which conservative treatments were ineffective. Angelo’s treating physicians at his prison repeatedly requested diagnostic testing and/or surgery to treat his medical condition, but ODRC’s central office refused to approve any of the tests or treatments. Meanwhile, Angelo’s condition made it painful to eat, sit or walk, and exposed him to a great risk of further complications.
In October 2012, OJPC filed a request for TRO seeking immediate diagnostic testing and surgery to treat the client’s condition. Dr. Bozian volunteered to provide his expert medical opinion on Angelo’s care. Through our work, in April 2013, Angelo received the surgery he needed – and it has made a world of difference. After receiving the surgery, he said he “felt like a new man.”
For Dr. Bozian, the feeling is mutual. “As a physician,” he says, “I have appreciated the opportunity to serve hand in hand with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center in their role as ombudsmen for the rights of those confined in the criminal justice system. It has been a fulfilling and spiritualizing experience for me to participate in this humane venture.”