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Lakota woman beats IHS in court

RAPID CITY, S.D. ? The Indian Health Service Unit on the Pine Ridge Reservation was found medically negligent by a federal judge.

U.S. Federal Judge Karen Schreier ruled that IHS emergency room nurses practiced medicine beyond the scope of their expertise. Oglala Lakota tribal member Darla Trueblood filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the IHS because she received second- and third-degree burns on her leg caused by an improperly applied splint.

Trueblood suffered a broken leg after falling over a fence. It was determined in the emergency room that she needed to be transferred to Rapid City Regional Hospital. While Dr. Keith Walfenbarger examined X-rays, the nursing staff began wrapping Trueblood's leg with a plaster cast without the doctor's orders. Court documents state that she began screaming when they did, told them it was too tight and that it was hot.

In written remarks, Schreier stated that the nurses did not meet acceptable standards of care when they put the cast on without a doctor's order and failed to remove it after Trueblood complained it was too hot.

Because the cast was placed on Trueblood's leg without a doctor's order, Schreier determined the nurses acted outside the scope of their expertise.

The court was told that following surgery it was determined that the blisters which formed on Trueblood's leg were not fracture blisters and that the cast caused the burn. Those blisters resulted in infection and scarring.

Attorney Charles Abourezk of Rapid City defended Trueblood. He said the case was difficult because of the lack of information in medical records and "most of those who were present testified that they could remember very little about the incident.

"It was very frustrating, but fortunately a couple of the employees came forward and were honest about what had happened."

Dr. Walfenbarger moved to another state, which made it difficult to acquire testimony, he said, and lack of documented evidence in the medical records led to Abourezk taking a risk as he opened his closing remarks: "Why do IHS doctors wear masks during surgery ? So that you can't identify them later in court?

"Although the burns were a very serious matter, the joke was metaphorical about what tribal members often experience at government health facilities, and in particular helps to point to the apparent lack of willingness to take responsibility when mistakes are made that injure Indian people," Abourezk said.

IHS attorneys have until later in December to reply to additional evidence presented in the case after the actual trial. At that time Judge Schreier will determine the amount of damages to be awarded to Trueblood.