An untreated infection caused by a superbug killed a 28-year-old Eastern Kentucky University graduate held at the Laurel County Detention Center, according to the woman's death certificate.
Cortney Beldon Hensley had pneumonia caused by an uncommon and virulent strain of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, called MRSA 300, when she died in March.
The strain can be resistant to antibiotics. It releases toxins, causing necrotizing pneumonia and sepsis, a blood infection, said Mark Hensley, director of the Laurel County Health Department. Cortney Hensley was not related to Mark Hensley.
Her death prompted an internal investigation at the jail, where Hensley's condition went undetected, that led to changes in monitoring inmates' medical conditions.
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Hensley had been in jail for six days on a charge of obtaining a controlled substance without a doctor's prescription when a staff member found her nearly unresponsive in her cell at 10 p.m. March 9, said Jailer Jamie Mosley. She was pronounced dead two hours later at St. Joseph London hospital, according to her death certificate, signed May 31.
Although Mosley said he had been assured the facility did all it could, family members think Hensley's death would have been preventable if she had received proper medical treatment.
"Cortney was a beautiful and kind young woman whose death has shocked and devastated not only her family but an entire community of people whose lives she touched," her family said in an email statement to the Herald-Leader. "Although she was arrested on this charge, she died before she ever had the opportunity to face this accusation in court.
"She was a healthy 28-year-old who had not been sick. She had her whole life ahead of her, and if she had received proper medical treatment, her death may have been prevented.
"While we wish more had been done for her, we hope her death serves as a wake-up call to the poor medical care provided in our county jails, and hope this never happens to anyone else."
"If I was a family member or a friend, I would have those same concerns," the jailer said.
The Laurel County sheriff's office investigated Hensley's death.
Three days before her death, Hensley appeared to be hallucinating from drug withdrawal and struck a corrections officer, said Mosley. Consequently, Hensley was handcuffed and placed in a restraint chair, he said, which led to bruising. She did not appear to have pneumonia symptoms.
Based on the coroner's report, the sheriff's office has determined that Hensley's death was the result of natural causes, spokesman Gilbert Acciardo said.
Hensley was a 2002 graduate of Boyle County High School, where she played soccer, basketball and softball and was voted Funniest Senior, according to her obituary. She earned a degree in criminal justice from EKU.
Hensley was seen by the jail's medical staff less than two hours before she was found nearly unresponsive. She had complained of back pain and appeared to be going through withdrawal.
Mosley said Hensley was treated for back pain and released from Baptist Regional Medical Center at Corbin. She had not complained of flu or pneumonia symptoms, he said.
The state health department was able to rule out an outbreak of MRSA 300, said Gwenda Bond, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services' Department of Public Health.
While one other death from MRSA 300 occurred at a Laurel County hospital in March, no other inmates were infected, health officials said.
"These kinds of bacterial pneumonias are not common, but they are not rare either," Bond said. "When they occur, they can cause quite severe illness with high mortality rates, even in relatively young healthy people, especially when staph strains that produce certain toxins are involved."
The death certificate also said Hensley had an acute gastrointestinal bleed. It might have been caused by an ulcer, Coroner Doug Bowling said.
In the aftermath of Hens ley's death, Mosley asked a team of health officials, which included an official from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what his staff might have done differently. Although he was told there was nothing more he could have done, Mosley said, details of Hensley's death are being used in training.
In addition, high-definition cameras have been placed in the cells where Hensley was being monitored by medical officials for complaints of back pain and possible drug withdrawal, he said.
Staff in another medical area now document electronically that they have checked on an inmate every 15 minutes.
Moreover, Mosley said, he was taking steps to curb MRSA skin infections by installing dispensers of hand sanitizer in cells and having inmate use antibacterial bath and body wash. The jail is revamping shower facilities. Inmates with MRSA are isolated.
He estimated the jail had six MRSA skin cases in 2012 and less than 10 in 2013.
Statewide, corrections officials knew of no other deaths caused by the same strain of MRSA that killed Hensley.
In 2007, several people who had been inmates at Kentucky jails, including Laurel County's, filed federal lawsuits saying the jails had failed to protect them from contracting MRSA. Greg Belzley, the attorney who represented the inmates, said those lawsuits were dismissed.
"It's very hard, if not impossible, to prove where anybody caught MRSA," he said. "People bring pre-existing medical conditions into jails all the time." The question once that happens, he said, "is whether inmates are given the medical treatment they need during their incarceration."