SMOKEY POINT — A mental health hospital once hailed as “an answer to many prayers” is now being sued for neglecting a patient’s care, leading to her death.
Rosemary Torgesen, 78, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and said voices told her to stop eating. When her family got a court order to involuntarily commit her to a hospital in March 2018, they expected she would get better with treatment. Previous hospitalizations, in which she was compelled to accept medications and nutrition, had been successful.
The family didn’t know at the time that state inspectors had conducted several surveys of Smokey Point Behavioral Hospital. Just days before Torgesen was admitted, the Department of Health declared “immediate jeopardy” and found that patients faced a “high risk of serious harm, injury, and death due to the extent of deficiencies.” The hospital didn’t ensure the safety of patients identified as a danger to themselves and others, and didn’t properly monitor patients who were actively suicidal, inspectors concluded.
The lawsuit, filed Feb. 7 in Snohomish County Superior Court, demands an unspecified amount of money in damages and names a subsidiary of US HealthVest as the defendant, which operates for-profit psychiatric hospitals in Illinois, Georgia and Washington — including Smokey Point. The family is represented by Tacoma-based law firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala.
The 115-bed mental health facility opened in June 2017, preceded by hopes that it would help fill a decades-long need for more inpatient psychiatric care in the county. Keith Binkley, president of the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness Snohomish County, offered praise after he toured the building.
“For us, it’s essentially an answer to many prayers,” he said at the time.
The hospital’s history of troubles, as well as Torgesen’s story, were first detailed in a Seattle Times investigation.
Documents obtained by The Daily Herald through a public records request showed numerous and wide-ranging complaints have been filed with the state, often citing inadequate care and understaffing. One patient reportedly wasn’t given medications for days, resulting in a seizure. A woman wrote that she may have suffered permanent vision loss when she was denied medication for glaucoma for two weeks. And several complaints described unsafe discharges, in which transportation and medication weren’t arranged, or a person had been allowed to leave while still experiencing suicidal ideation.
In 2018, there were 88 assaults, 33 discoveries of contraband, and 23 employee injuries, according to the lawsuit.
“Despite the March 2018 findings that the facility was cultivating an unsafe environment for patients, Smokey Point had continued admitting patients which the facility could not manage, including Rosemary Torgesen,” the lawsuit states. “The executives employed by Smokey Point failed to increase staffing despite warnings from employees and regulators that conditions were unsafe.”
County Executive Dave Somers and Councilman Nate Nehring expressed concern in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee on Jan. 17, 2019, saying they had received several complaints from patients, family members and hospital employees. They requested that the Department of Health conduct biweekly onsite audits, restrict the number of admissions to the hospital until there was sufficient staff, and survey patients and families after discharge.
“Our constituents trust that when their loved ones are admitted to these facilities they are treated with the utmost care and diligence,” Somers and Nehring wrote in their letter. “The facts on the ground at SPBH reflect a different reality.”
County spokesperson Kent Patton said officials continue to be concerned about conditions at the hospital, despite multiple audits and increased attention. He reiterated Somers’ and Nehring’s call for increased oversight from the state. Patton also said that the audit reports available online — filled with highly technical, inscrutable language — should be made more accessible and understandable for the public.
Though she had schizophrenia, the lawsuit says Torgesen led a “largely active and independent life.” She raised seven children, was a parishioner at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Marysville and a longtime volunteer with Catholic Community Services. She was the oldest patient in the Smokey Point hospital’s history when she was admitted on March 22, 2018.
During her 99-day stay, Torgesen was “repeatedly shuffled back and forth” from emergency rooms as staff struggled to care for her, plaintiffs wrote. She refused to eat and she rejected medications.
“After Rosemary’s admission, it is believed that Smokey Point’s nursing and medical staff quickly realized they lacked the ability to properly care for Rosemary,” the lawsuit states.
On June 16, 2018 Torgesen fell and was taken to Cascade Valley Hospital, where she was diagnosed with a broken arm. Her condition continued to deteriorate after her return to Smokey Point, documents say.
Torgesen became incontinent and unable to walk, and eventually needed a wheelchair, plaintiffs wrote. She injured her tailbone, and doctors later discovered she also suffered a broken leg and pelvic fractures when she fell. At one point, she didn’t eat or drink anything for at least four days, according to a Department of Health investigation. She became gaunt. The lawsuit claims that, toward the end of her stay, staff resisted meeting with her children.
In its investigation, the Department of Health concluded that Smokey Point failed to transfer Torgesen to a higher level of care in a timely manner when the hospital was unable to address the patient’s health care needs. Moreover, the medical director wasn’t included in the day-to-day care of Torgesen, even though her condition likely needed continual reassessment.
“As a result of Defendant’s neglect and/or abuse, Rosemary Torgesen directly and proximately suffered harm and damages including but not limited to disability, pain and suffering, and, ultimately, her wrongful death,” plaintiffs wrote.
Torgesen died July 20, 2018. Her death certificate showed she died from malnutrition and complications due to injuries related to her fall in June.
Later, Torgesen’s son reportedly received a bill from the hospital for $28,000 for the care of his mother. By the end of Torgesen’s 99-day stay, the hospital had charged a total of $297,000, according to the lawsuit.
This story has been updated to show the correct name of the church Rosemary Torgesen attended.