‘Inexcusable’: Attorney blasts federal prison officials over Boca woman’s medical care

WEST PALM BEACH — A South Florida woman incarcerated in Texas says prison officials’ failure to provide proper medical care has threatened to turn her brief stint behind bars into a death sentence.

Suzanne Kaye, 61, suffers from severe, stress-induced seizures. She went into cardiac arrest on the floor of a West Palm Beach courthouse last year after jurors convicted her of threatening to shoot FBI agents in the “(expletive) ass.”

The threats, posted online under the alias “Angry Patriot Hippie,” came in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection and days before someone else shot and killed two agents executing a search warrant at a home in Sunrise.

Kaye’s team of public defenders warned the judge that any prison sentence could result in the Century Village resident’s premature death. They relied on thousands of pages of medical records to demonstrate a history of seizures that her doctors managed with medical marijuana, which is outlawed federally.

In April, U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg sentenced Kaye to 18 months in Federal Medical Center Carswell, a prison in Fort Worth, anyway. She did so after a medical director with the Bureau of Prisons agreed to see to it personally that the Century Village resident receives the care she needs.

He did not.

“That was my mistake,” Dr. Mark Holbrook told the judge last month, after Kaye went into cardiac arrest again.

Letters from half a dozen inmates and the testimony of Carswell’s own medical director depict a standard of care unlike the one Holbrook promised. One where Kaye must depend on her fellow inmates to keep her heart beating, and doubts over the legitimacy of her seizures dampens what care she does receive.

Previously:‘Angry Patriot Hippie’ collapses after jury finds her guilty of threatening to kill FBI agents

With a prosecutor and a public defender at odds over whether the threat to Kaye’s life is great enough to end her prison sentence early — and a judge unsure if it can legally be done — Kaye’s pathway forward is unclear.

Rosenberg already denied her request for release on bond on account of her poor health while her case makes its way through the appellate court earlier this year. In order for her to reconsider, Kaye’s attorney must raise new questions of fact and law, or try a different approach altogether.

“I refuse to believe that a federal court can’t intervene with a defendant whose life is in danger at the (Bureau of Prisons),” Assistant Public Defender Kristy Militello said during the latest of several hearings. “What the best recourse is, I will find it and file something with the court.”

Time is of the essence, Rosenberg said.

Attorney calls prison bureau’s conduct ‘inexcusable, if not malpractice’

Holbrook told the judge in April that some inmates have medical needs beyond what the Bureau of Prisons can treat. Kaye, he said, is not one of them.

Five months later, her heart and lungs briefly stopped working on the floor of a friend’s cell. Inmates screamed at the guards to call for help.

“Granny’s eyes were wide open, but you could see that the light was no longer there,” wrote Katherine Moore, one of two incarcerated women who performed CPR on Kaye until medics arrived. “She was gone.”

Rosenberg didn’t need to imagine the full-body convulsions Moore described, or the choking on saliva, or the vomit and moaning, or the extended silence between Kaye’s breaths. She’d seen it happen once before in her own courtroom and was warned it would happen again if the proper precautions weren’t taken.

Holbrook said they would be.

More:‘Angry Patriot Hippie’ threatened to kill FBI agents. She fears the penalty may kill her.

When vouching for Carswell, the doctor said Kaye would have access to a neurologist to treat her seizures and a psychologist to treat the anxiety that triggers them. He also promised a combination of anti-seizure medications that would take the place of her medical marijuana.

“He made several promises and several assurances. It appears none of which occurred,” Militello told the judge in September. “I’m not saying he lied — maybe he meant to and he forgot — but it is inexcusable in my opinion.”

Holbrook spoke in his defense later, telling Rosenberg he left a voicemail with someone he believed was Carswell’s clinical director and never heard back.

Maitee Serrano-Mercado, Carswell’s clinical director, testified that she was never contacted by Holbrook, and prison staff only belatedly learned that Kaye had a history of seizures.

Holbrook’s outlook on Carswell remained rosy. He told the judge he was thankful Kaye was there because it is “the best location” for her to be provided care.

Once dubbed a “hospital of horrors,” the Fort Worth prison is the only federal medical facility for incarcerated women in the country. It lost its accreditation during the pandemic and has not gotten it back.

Like prosecutor, doctor implies inmate may be faking seizures

Serrano-Mercado appeared in court virtually to address Militello’s concerns with Kaye’s treatment. She took the same position a federal prosecutor did when arguing why he believed Kaye was strong enough to withstand incarceration: Her seizures might not be real.

“I never use the word ‘faking,’ ” Serrano-Mercado told the judge. “I don’t believe it is faking. It is pseudo-seizure.”

People experiencing a pseudo-seizure may believe what they’re experiencing is real, the doctor said. Anxiety and stress can spur the brain to produce very real physical symptoms, even if body scans or blood tests show no trace of them.

Serrano-Mercado suggested that Kaye was holding her breath during a Sept. 3 incident for which she had to be hospitalized and intubated. As for her missing pulse, the doctor suggested that the paramedic who appraised her was too hyped up on adrenaline to find it.

The implication, which Militello called “offensive,” was reminiscent of doctors’ notes written on 20 pages of Kaye’s 13,000-page medical record suggesting she either faked or worsened her ailments to get more medication.

Militello asked Serrano-Mercado whether the staff treating Kaye are the same who treated a woman named Gwen Rider, a Carswell inmate who committed suicide in August. The answer was yes.

Like Kaye, Rider was sent to Carswell because she needed medical treatment for epileptic seizures. In interviews with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Rider’s family said staff accused her of faking her seizures, too.

Kaye was hospitalized again on Oct. 15. Her mother, Brenda Kaye, told The Palm Beach Post that medical personnel accidentally fractured her sternum while checking to see if she exhibited a pain response. Representatives for the prison have not returned requests for comment.

In an email to The Post, Kaye called the treatment of herself and other women at the prison “nothing short of torture.”

“People come in here walking and leave in wheel chairs. People die here,” she wrote. “I don’t want to be one of them.”

Hannah Phillips is a journalist covering public safety and criminal justice at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at hphillips@pbpost.com.

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