Cancer in Prison
In the spring of 2014,a slow-to-heal sore throat turned out to be cancer. By mid-October, I had been moved from the CCA facility in Kentucky to Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vermont. The bus ride was miserable. Thirty hours on a rock hard bench chained to another guy. No movement allowed except to use the toilet, while still chained together.
Initially I was housed in Charlie unit. It is a medical unit for people with ongoing health problems. Nurses came in at various times to dispense medication, check blood pressures, change dressings, etc. Examinations and other treatment are performed in the medical wing. It is not a walk-in clinic. You have to submit a medical slip, then wait to be called in — usually a few days later. A doctor is available on some days. Nurses do the bulk of the work in the infirmary and everywhere else. The staff have widely varying levels of experience. Some emergencies are handled at Springfield Hospital. Specialty care and surgery may happen at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. My cancer treatement – seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy – happened there. Five days a week, for seven weeks, I went there in shackles, with two corrections officers who looked at their cellphones while I received treatment.
At DHMC, the level of consistency is high. No staff ever behaved toward me as if I was some sort of a monster. I felt very lucky to be treated there. Kentucky was a bad joke.
In the fall of 2014 a feeding tube and mediport were put in. Eventually my throat would be come so raw and inflamed from radiation I could only be fed liquids. Pain meds made things tolerable. Normal comfort didn’t return until months after treatment ended. Slowly I recovered the ability to swallow solid food. I spent about four months in the infirmary.
The treatment drains you of energy. You lose your appetite. What’s even worse is the sense of isolation and hopelessness in the infirmary itself. My room, #4, was called the Death Room. At one point I was moved out to allow a guy to die in there. Inmate deaths are not uncommon.
When I contracted pneumonia I was moved to Springfield Hospital. I was in a medicated haze the entire time, often not knowing where I was. My wife was allowed to visit me but never to touch me. Visiting policies changed every time you asked SSCF staff. There was no consistency, making a very difficult situation even worse.
All in all the experience was a draining, harrowing ordeal for family, friends, and myself. CT scans have so far come back clear. With no recurrences, in five years I should be statistically out of danger. Four years to go. I turn 64 in June.
The state of Vermont contracts prison health care to an outside provider. The firm hires staff and decides what level of care is “appropriate and adequate.” No one expects miracles, but the gaps between what is promised and what is actually delivered can be huge. Garbled communication between SSCF staff and DHMC on occasion resulted in me missing scheduled appointments. At SSCF mixups and confusion over dosages, etc., would too often occur when shifts changed. Machinery would malfunction. Nurses are not trained mechanics. Mostly, they did what they could.
Without the help and diligence of my wife “keeping on” the staff, the outcome might not have been nearly so positive. Those who lack the extra help don’t fare so well. We all deserve to be heard and cared for. It’s only humane.
(NOTE FROM HIS WIFE: This account doesn't describe the heartbreak and anxiety of living with cancer in the prison environment, where there's little concern for your comfort or emotional wellbeing -- and to be the person on the outside, unable to provide that care. DOC does little to involve the family at these times, and in fact treats any efforts to be supportive with suspicion. That anyone can recover in these circumstances amazes me.)