Electric shock suit condemns hospital
Elderly woman died 2 days after release

Jim Doyle
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, July 22, 2001

Lucille Ashby's fatal journey through California's mental health system began in 1997, when a Tehama County judge found her incompetent to stand trial for hitting her husband on the head with a sugar bowl.

The 77-year-old woman's life ended five months later, following what her daughters describe as a nightmarish odyssey.

"It's a very ugly story," said Ashby's daughter, Susan Heinle of Red Bluff. "They don't care for patients' physical needs or their dignity. It was really the most horrible experience our family could ever go through."

According to a lawyer for the family, Ashby endured a four-day road trip in a van filled with convicts en route to state prisons.

At Napa State Hospital, Ashby was assaulted by a male patient and suffered a broken hip, the family's lawyer says. Nurses strapped Ashby to her bed and a nearby chair for three months, fed her through a nasal tube, and allegedly gave her shock therapy.

She died of a heart attack on April 4, 1998, at a private convalescent hospital, two days after her release from the state hospital.

Her three daughters have filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court that alleges elder abuse against Napa State and Tri-County Extraditions, a state contractor that transports convicts and mentally ill patients.

Ashby, a longtime Alzheimer's patient, wasn't the most likable person: She had a short temper and swore a lot. Nurses' notes describe her as "combative" and "verbally abusive" to the staff.

The lawsuit contends that Ashby's death was hastened by electroshock treatments that were administered to her as a disciplinary measure - which is illegal. It also alleges the hospital did not maintain an adequate staff.

Under California law, Ashby's daughters cannot recover punitive damages against a state agency. Any claim of noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, is limited to $250,000.

Napa State Hospital officials deny that Ashby was abused by the nursing staff and that she received shock treatments.

But Shasta County Coroner Harold N. Harrison, who performed an autopsy on Ashby, noted and photographed bruised areas on her temples that penetrated her skull.

"The bruises were black in color and consisted of overlapping bruises that were perhaps a half dozen in number and that indicated repeated electroshock treatment," Harrison wrote in a signed affidavit in 1999.

Ashby, who was charged in August 1997 for assaulting her husband, was sent to Patton State Hospital for psychiatric treatment.

On Sept. 29, 1997, Tri-County Extraditions, which denies any wrongdoing, took custody of Ashby and transported her. The lawsuit alleges that she arrived at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino four days later - dehydrated, unmedicated and with open wounds from restraints on her wrists and ankles.

A week later, Ashby was transferred to Napa State Hospital, where she fell and broke her hip while being attacked by a patient known for assaultive behavior. She would never walk again.

For the next three months, Ashby was strapped to her bed and fed through a plastic tube, although her doctors concluded that she could swallow. Nurses said she refused to eat and kept trying to pull the tube out.

"She was despised by the nurses," said attorney Karen Kissler, who represents Ashby's daughters. "They kept her restrained for their own convenience. They kept her chained like an animal."

State law allows physical restraints on patients to be used only as a last resort.

In March 1998, the misdemeanor charge against Ashby was dismissed, and she was released.

"She was unconscious the last eight times we saw her. She was totally drugged," Heinle said. "It was just hideous. It's insane the way they treat the patients there. . . . We want to either close the hospital down or get it revamped, so that other families don't have to go through what we did."