By John Newton, Editor
La Voz Latina
GEORGIA — The death of a child is one of the most traumatic events imaginable for a parent. When that child dies of causes that could or should have been preventable, the pain is much harder to endure.
18-year-old Victor Vega of Lyons, Georgia died on the morning of October 27th en route to the emergency room of Meadows Regional Medical Center in Vidalia following a brief respiratory illness.
What makes his death so hard for his mother Verenice Guerra to understand is that a medical doctor at the same hospital had examined Victor and sent him home just hours earlier after telling him “There’s nothing wrong, you’re free to go home. You just have a throat infection.”
In February of 2011, officials at Meadows Regional Medical Center celebrated the grand opening of a new, state-of-the-art 194,000 square foot facility touted as being among the most advanced in the state with an expanded emergency department featuring 22 trauma, diagnostic and treatment rooms.
As of this writing, hospital officials have refused to release any statement regarding the events surrounding Victor Vega’s death.
Victor Vega Sr. said his son had a good job at a local onion storage facility but had been nursing a cough for about a week prior to his death. Then on Wednesday, October 26th , his condition worsened. At 8pm that evening, Victor’s mother walked into his room and discovered that he was burning up with fever. An hour later he began to cough really hard and complained that his back and ribs were hurting him very much.
“We gave him some medicine but he didn’t get any better,” she said. “He was shivering and shaking so we decided to take him to the hospital. On the way there Victor seemed to feel better and we thought the medicine was helping.”
Neither Victor, his mother or his father spoke English so the family enlisted the help of a 14-year-old neighbor to accompany them and act as their interpreter.
When Victor arrived at the ER and was called back to an examination room, the nurse told the family that only one person could accompany him, so family members had to remain behind as the minor child went with Victor to interpret for him.
“I wanted to go with him to make sure they understood how sick my son was but they just laughed and made a joke about why would an 18-year-old need his mother,” Verenice Guerra said.
According to the 14-year-old girl, a nurse told Victor he was experiencing fever and heart palpitations and sent the family to an intake desk so that clerks could update his personal information.
“When I told the clerk that Victor didn’t have a social security number, she just rolled her eyes and made some comment in English to the clerk at the desk beside hers,” Verenice Guerra said. “Then they just skipped the rest of the sheet and verified our family address.”
At this point, it was 11pm and the interpreter’s father arrived to take her home so she could be ready for school the next morning.
“I was worried because they never offered us an interpreter and we needed to know what was happening to our son,” Verenice Guerra said. “So Victor called his girl friend who is bilingual and asked her to get there as soon as possible.”
An emergency room spokesperson at Meadows Regional Medical Center refused to disclose to La Voz Latina the hospital’s policy for providing trained interpreters on site.
After another wait, Victor and his mother were escorted into an exam room where they were greeted by a doctor who addressed them in English.
“I told him we didn’t speak English, so, in Spanish, he asked my son ‘Do you have any pain’,” Verenice Guerra said. “Victor said yes and pointed to his back and to his ribs. Then this doctor left and a second doctor came into the room. He examined my son with his stethoscope, then said something to us in English and walked away.”
Verenice Guerra said she then got word thatVictor’s girlfriend had arrived to act as his interpreter.
“I went out to find his girlfriend but we got back to the exam room, they told us Victor had been taken away for blood work and X-rays.” Verenice Guerra said.
It was now after midnight and the family continued to huddle in the waiting room hoping someone would explain what was wrong with their son.
“Then Victor and his girlfriend came out. They said the Doctor gave him a couple of pills and said he would be OK,” Verenice Guerra said.
When the family returned home and put Victor in bed around 2 am, he seemed to be feeling better but later that morning, around 6:45am, as Verenice Guerra was getting her other children ready for school, she heard a loud noise and rushed into Victor’s room to discover him lying on the floor, struggling to get up.
“He was trying to get to the bathroom but was so weak, he couldn’t get there,” she said. “Then his grandmother went to check on him and he began to panic, saying he was going blind and couldn’t see anything.”
When the women helped Victor back to his bedroom, he became agitated and started thrashing around in his bed.
“Suddenly, he sat up, looked at me and said ‘Mother, please take me back to the hospital, I don’t want to die,”Verenice Guerra said. “So we got him in the van and took off.”
Looking back on their ordeal, a number of issues continue to bother the Vega family.
“On the way to the hospital, we had a local policeman and two State Patrol officers who stopped to ask why we were in such a hurry,” Victor Vega Sr. said. “I told them my son was very sick, thinking they would get an ambulance or at least escort us so we could get to the hospital quickly, but they just dismissed us and told us to take him ourselves.”
When the family reached the same emergency room where they had spent much of the previous night, they realized that their son was no longer with them.
“When they brought the stretcher out to get his body, I knew he had quit breathing,” Verenice Guerra said. “They took him into a small room and everyone was rushing around. But after a few minutes, a doctor came out and said ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but your son has died’.”
Less than five minutes after receiving that tragic news, a man approached the family and introduced himself as a representative of the Jones Stewart Funeral Home.
“We were all in a state of shock and suddenly here is this man asking us to sign a bunch of papers, telling us how many thousands of dollars we will have to pay if we wish to send our son’s body back home to Mexico,” Victor Vega Sr. said. “I was very suspicious of this funeral home because they kept insisting we had to sign off on the cause of death before we could ship our son home. They wanted me to sign a form saying Victor’s death was caused by ‘general infection’ but I refused.I remembered that a radiologist told our interpreter that x-rays revealed fluid on Victor’s lungs and bronchial pneumonia.”
Two weeks later, the Vega family paid the final installment of the $5300 funeral bill and were allowed to see their son one last time before his body was shipped to Mexico.
Victor is gone now but important questions remain.
The central question of why Victor was sent home with a condition that apparently killed him a few hours later may not be answered until the results of his autopsy are released and lawyers and courts have had their say.
But another question to be answered is whether or not this so-called “state-of-the-art” medical facility, located in the heart of Georgia’s immigrant labor community, has serious gaps in its ability to treat non-English speaking patients.
The hardest question of all is one that may never be answered. Is the stigma and attending prejudice attached to being an undocumented immigrant in the US today a fatal condition in and of itself?