Whiteclay, Nebraska, is a town just across the border from the Pine Ridge Reservation whose economy was based on selling alcohol to members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Liquor sales were halted there in 2017 in response to decades of complaints from tribal officials and Native activists. Photo: Ammodramus

Lawsuit blames Indian Health Service and 'rent-a-doc' for Lakota woman's death

Sherry Wounded Foot, 50, died after being seen at IHS facility

The daughter of a Lakota woman who died after she was found severely beaten and unconscious near South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in August 2016 is suing federal Indian health officials and a private health care company for medical negligence.

Sandra Wounded Foot Graham, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, filed a civil complaint on March 5 in U.S. District Court in Rapid City, South Dakota, alleging Indian Health Service employees and employees of a private company hired by the federal government to oversee the Pine Ridge hospital’s emergency medical department failed to properly diagnose and treat her mother, Sherry Wounded Foot.

Sherry Wounded Foot, 50, was found August 5, 2016, severely beaten in Whiteclay, a town in Nebraska that's just across the border from the reservation. She died 12 days later at a Rapid City, South Dakota, hospital. No one has been charged in relation to her death, though her death remains under investigation.

According to Wounded Foot Graham’s civil complaint, Sherry Wounded Foot’s boyfriend, Greeley White, called 911 around 9:40 a.m. after she became unresponsive behind a building in Whiteclay. The Oglala Sioux Tribe’s ambulance service arrived about five minutes later to take Wounded Foot to the Pine Ridge hospital, about two miles away.

The ambulance crew gave no indication that Wounded Foot had suffered a head injury or any other traumatic injuries, despite the presence of blood and bruising on her body, according to the civil complaint.

From left: The deaths and murders of Wilson Black Elk, Ronald Hard Heart, Sanford Wounded Foot and Sherry Wounded Foot in and around Whiteclay, Nebraska, remain unsolved. Sanford and Sherry were siblings.

After arriving at the hospital, a doctor employed by AB Staffing Solutions – an Arizona-based health care company – examined Wounded Foot but found no evidence of a brain injury and did not order a CT scan, according to the lawsuit. White Face told doctors and nurses she had been drinking heavily and had gone into an “alcoholic seizure.”

It took nearly two hours before the late Dr. Ralph Alving ordered a CT scan of Wounded Foot. The scan showed she was suffering from intracerebral bleeding and needed immediate surgery, which the Pine Ridge hospital was unable to provide. As a result, the hospital decided to send her to a hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota, though it took nearly another hour for her to leave the reservation hospital on a helicopter life-flight.

According to the lawsuit, Wounded Foot’s severe head injury, combined with the lack of competent triage or a timely CT scan, wasted the Lakota woman’s “Golden Hour” window when she could have been saved. The lawsuit also criticizes the Pine Ridge hospital for refusing to order CT scans in order to save money.

After the CT scan was completed, White Face finally admitted to medical staff that Wounded Foot had been assaulted and had hit her head the day before, according to the lawsuit.

Frank LaMere stands near where Sherry Wounded Foot was found beaten and unconscious in Whiteclay, Nebraska. Photo by Kimberly Greager / Native Sun News Today

Alving and other medical staff who treated Wounded Foot failed to diagnose Wounded Foot’s critical condition, despite obvious bruising to her chin and under her right eye, the lawsuit states. Medical staff also failed to note Wounded Foot’s medical history on file at the hospital, which showed she had suffered abuse before at the hands of her boyfriend, White Face.

Shortly after she arrived at Rapid City Regional Hospital, doctors ordered a second CT scan of Wounded Foot, which again showed she had suffered a subdural hematoma, as well as fractures to her right-side ribs. A neurosurgeon operated on Wounded Foot shortly before 5 p.m. on August 5, 2016, and she was taken to intensive care in stable condition afterward.

However, Wounded Foot never regained consciousness and remained in a deep coma five days later, having suffered irreversible brain injury. Her family eventually decided to have her taken back to the Pine Ridge hospital on August 17 and took her off life support there. She died later that night.

In her lawsuit, Wounded Foot’s daughter criticizes federal Indian health officials for hiring AB Staffing Solutions, which she describes as a “rent-a-doc” corporation. She said IHS routinely hires such companies to handle public health care for Native people at troubled healthcare facilities, such as the Pine Ridge hospital.

She said those “rent-a-doc” companies often hire medical staff who have criminal backgrounds or tarnished professional records. She said the federal government hires these questionable for-profit corporations to handle Indian health care as part of a long-term goal of ending treaty-based healthcare by creating poorly managed facilities that Indians will choose to avoid.

“The proposed plan and vicious cycle is intended to create a pattern of neglect and abuse so bad that the Native American people will quit visiting these hospitals, and if the people quit coming, then the U.S. politicians can slash the IHS budgets based upon the declining numbers of patients,” the lawsuit states.

Sandra Wounded Foot Graham is seeking financial compensation for the medical expenses accrued by her mother, as well as for the costs of her mother’s funeral and memorial expenses, all of which amount to more than $100,000.

She is also seeking unspecified compensation for her mother’s and her own pain and suffering.

The federal government has about two months to respond to her lawsuit.

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