When 82-year-old Dick Meredith died in the care of an Iowa state mental institution last fall, his family had no idea the depth of questions that would arise upon a closer look at his care while a resident of the facility in the months following his death.
Meredith had been a resident of various facilities, including the Clarinda Mental Health Institute where he died, for more than 60 years. His family reports feeling that he was receiving quality, loving care during his approximately 10 years at the Clarinda facility, but following his death they have decided otherwise.
Meredith first entered into institutional care at the age of 16, upon recommendation from school authorities. At the time he was described as exhibiting behavior that, in many ways, was not much of a stretch from a typical teenage boy. Notes indicate that he was “shy,” “an introvert,” had acne that embarrassed him and enjoyed singing and sports. The notes also state “It is believed that with proper institutional care, he will be able to live a normal life on a low level.” Sadly, that would not be the case.
Over the years Meredith reportedly begged to return home, but aside from a few holiday visits, his wish was never granted. Meredith underwent multiple rounds of electroshock therapy while institutionalized, but it was a lobotomy, performed without the knowledge or permission of his parents, that led to his ultimate decline.
Upon receiving a letter informing them of the lobotomy, Meredith’s parents were reportedly outraged. The young man who was previously only shy and prone to what have been referred to as “repetitive and anxious behaviors” was now just a shell of his former self. His sister says “he was like a zombie” and that he was effectively doomed to experience the rest of his life as a toddler. He was never again able to carry on normal conversation and was prone to tantrums when frustrated or frightened.
At the time that Meredith’s lobotomy was performed, the procedure involving severing the connections between different parts of the brain was not entirely unusual, particularly among those institutionalized in state facilities, where consent was not necessarily required. Doctors did not have psychiatric medications at their disposal as they do today and believed that a lobotomy could result in the lessening of psychiatric symptoms to the point where a patient may be able to return home. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 50,000 people underwent the frightening procedure before it fell out of medical favor in the late 1950s.
Following his lobotomy, Meredith moved frequently from facility to facility, finding his final home at the Clarinda facility with a few dozen other elderly institutionalized mental health patients. At one point, a transfer to another facility was suggested, but Meredith’s family fought to keep him at Clarinda where they felt he was being well-cared for and seemed happy. In the weeks and months following his death, Meredith’s family would come to regret that decision.
Meredith’s sister and niece were informed of his death shortly after it occurred on Sept. 1, 2013. They were told that he had died as a result of a heart attack and did not question that information until they were tipped off by a November report in The Des Moines Register that said that the facility had been fined in connection with a death that had resulted from giving a patient food that he was doctor-ordered not to have. They knew immediately that the report pertained to Meredith when they saw the date of the violation and death.
Meredith was apparently given a peanut butter sandwich despite doctor’s orders that he was to receive only pureed food due to swallowing problems. He was reportedly found by staff, unresponsive, his throat clogged by the peanut butter. Inspectors were told that the dietary staff “just forgot” to properly label the residents’ meals, an unfortunate fact that may have ultimately led to Meredith’s death. The facility reports that appropriate “personnel action” has been taken.
Meredith’s family is outraged that they were misled as to the cause of his death and further outraged by the facility’s refusal to inform them of the truth even after they expressed immense gratitude to the staff for their loving care of Meredith.
Meredith’s sister is reportedly contemplating legal action against the Iowa facility that she believes is responsible for her brother’s death. She explains that she just wants state officials to take responsibility for what happened, to answer the questions raised about her brother’s death, and for the public to know “how crazy the system is–still.” Just because lobotomies are no longer being performed, she says, doesn’t mean that there aren’t still serious issues with state care.
By Michele Wessel