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Staph infection killed Pinellas jail inmate, medical examiner says

An autopsy of Dorothy Dian Palinchik, the Pinellas County Jail inmate who died in February, pinpointed her cause of death as severe pneumonia brought on by an MRSA infection.

"If she wasn't massively infected, she'd be alive right now," Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin said Tuesday. "It's like saying if not for the gunshot wound to the head, this person would be alive. It's that absolute."

Other than being slightly overweight and having a little coronary artery disease, Palinchik had no pre-existing health problems, Thogmartin said. But the autopsy could not determine whether Palinchik, 42, contracted the infection at the jail or was already infected when she was booked Feb. 13, Thogmartin said.

Her family believes the jail is at fault for not treating her aggressively.

"If she got that bad, why didn't they just go ahead and send her to the hospital?" asked Dorothy Helen Palinchik, the victim's mother.

She hired attorney Tampa Mark Buell to pursue a federal civil rights lawsuit against the jail.

"They just waited way too long to provide treatment, and it isn't clear that her treatment was of any great substance," Buell said.

The specifics of Palinchik's treatment at the jail have not been released because the case is now part of an internal affairs investigation. Pinellas sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said these investigations are launched whenever an inmate dies in custody.

MRSA is a problem in crowded places with questionable sanitation, including jails, hospitals, schools and nursing homes. About 1 percent of the population has staph bacteria that are resistant to certain kinds of antibiotics. That's where MRSA gets its name: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

Records show that in 2007, 21 inmates at the Pinellas jail tested positive for MRSA infections. The average daily population of the jail was just under 3,600.

Epidemiologists say it's hard to determine where Palinchik got the infection, because there is no standard amount of time it takes for an MRSA infection to develop.

Should jail staff have recognized the pneumonia sooner? Again, it's hard to say.

"You can have classic signs, but there are lots of times where you don't have classic signs," said Dr. Jose Montero, an infectious disease expert at the University of South Florida. "In some cases you cannot just by seeing a patient diagnosis pneumonia."

But those who saw Palinchik in the days after she entered the jail say her distress was obvious.

Palinchik came into the jail on Feb. 13, charged with stealing a $9 Philly cheesesteak sandwich from a Publix in St. Petersburg. Her bail was set at $250, but she didn't pay it. Boyfriend Michael Mullican said he offered, but Palinchik said she would rather do her time and get it over with.

Palinchik did not complain of feeling sick and did not have any visible open wounds at the time she was booked, according to the Medical Examiner's Office. Three days later, she started to complain.

Her color turned sickly. She began vomiting profusely and suffering from fever and chills. Kimberly Kuhl, 43, an inmate in the same cell block, saw Palinchik in the shower saying, "Oh my God. Oh my God," over and over.

"She knew she was dying," Kuhl said. "She knew there was something really wrong and nobody was listening to her."

By Feb. 17, she had a fever of 101.5 degrees, said Mullican, who visited her Feb. 21. The jail staff had given her only a Motrin and a Sudafed, Mullican said she told him.

"Michael, I've never been this sick in my life," Mullican quoted Palinchik as saying. She could barely lift her head, and after two or three minutes, she had to lie down.

Mullican said he complained to the staff at the jail about Palinchik's condition and was brushed off by hostile guards.

By the time Palinchik went to the infirmary on Feb. 22, she was so sick the jail's medical staff called 911. Arriving at the hospital, Palinchik was diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs and low blood pressure, according to a report from the medical examiner.

Her chief complaint was a sharp pain in her chest, according to records from her ambulance ride. The severity of the pain was listed as a 10.

For almost a week, doctors fought her infection and the pneumonia that had taken over her lungs. She was kept on a ventilator. Her pulse raced above 150. Her hands and feet turned dark blue and black.

Doctors told the family to consider amputation, then told them that even amputation wouldn't save her.

On Feb. 28, Palinchik died.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Staph infection killed Pinellas jail inmate, medical examiner says 04/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 8:53pm]
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