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A stethoscope and pen lie on top of medical records
Photo by BrianAJackson on Depositphotos

I’ve been in the biggest fight of my life for the past three years, struggling to find out the truth behind why I am in a wheelchair, possibly for life. What I experienced could have been avoided if my doctor had shared details about my health with me.

In the fall of 2018, I was working my prison job in the warehouse, which was a physical job that I really enjoyed. I had previously worked this job and had helped set up the original shelving units to store the culinary department’s dry goods and canned food.

The shelving units were very deep and wide, so the only way to stock and rotate products was to physically climb onto the top shelf, as another co-worker on a ladder handed you products.

I was up on the top shelf that day. My coworker had just handed me the last of 37 cases of pudding, each weighing 42 pounds. As I put the last case of pudding in place, the seam of the metal shelf split open, swallowing me into the opening with 1,500 pounds of pudding and other products crashing down on me. My coworker ran down to the laundry room. Ten other inmate workers had to come to the warehouse to free me as I hung, wedged between the top and bottom shelf.

Upon being freed, I was transported to a university hospital emergency room, where I received a CT scan. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the ER doctor referred me to a neurosurgeon, but I was taken back to the prison without receiving any information about my condition. After spending five days in the prison infirmary, I was released to go to work. I was told that my CT results were fine.

When I started to experience numbness in my arms, I was placed on a two-week lay-in, after which I was transferred to a less physical job. I had severe stabbing pains in my head as well as severe pain in my cervical spine, but the doctor kept assuring me that nothing was wrong. “You just think that something is going to be wrong because so much weight fell on you … but you’re fine,” I was told.

When I wasn’t in pain, I continued to play basketball and go power-walking because I took the doctor at his word.

The following summer, I was standing beside my bed in my cell when I felt my spine more or less close off from the lower part of my body. I could barely walk.

The next day, I saw the doctor who had assured me that I was fine. He ordered an X-ray of my lumbar spine. I was diagnosed with severe arthritis and spinal stenosis, but I was unconvinced that a simple X-ray would reveal that kind of information.

I filed a lawsuit and gained access to my medical records, which I was allowed to see only an hour at a time. After a couple years of investigative research, I discovered what I had known inherently all along: The medical providers had known of my degenerative spinal disease when it had only been a mild to moderate condition. 

My condition at this point was severe to advanced. I had my first spinal surgery in early 2021.

The neurosurgeon that I was finally able to see, after filing many grievances, asked me a question I will never forget: “How did you get to this point and nobody has ever seen you?”

“The prison providers felt that I did not have the right to know,” I responded.

Whatever prison you are at, people should make a point to look at their medical records. They too might be shocked to find out that their medical provider withheld information that they have a right to know.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Erin Kuhn-Brown is a writer incarcerated in Nevada. She believes in sharing the power of knowledge with others.