By Allison Wiggins
I was a guardian to a homeless man in Corpus Christi in 1998. This man, Stanley Nowak, was in
his late 80s, but very lucid, not an alcoholic or schizophrenic. Stanley would sit outside the Cathedral where I attended daily noon Mass. Due to his appearance, he wouldn’t come in for Mass even though I invited him. We became friends and I sort of took over his meager finances, which were in a state of disarray. The Social Security Administration had been underpaying him for years, so I arranged a meeting and brought his income out of arrears to a livable amount of money. Stanley was a wonderful person, although feisty. He would not let us move him into an apartment.
In the summer of 1998, he wanted to travel by bus to meet some military friends in Dubuque, Iowa for a few weeks. I was nervous for him to travel alone, but he was determined, well outfitted and well financed, so I saw him off at the bus station and told him to let me know when he arrived with a pre-addressed postcard I gave him. A week went by. I didn’t get the card, but didn’t worry too much. I had put a note with my phone number in his wallet, taped to his Medicare card, saying that I was his guardian and Dr. Wiggins and I would be responsible for him in a medical crisis.
A few more days went by. My phone rang. The anonymous caller identified herself as a social worker at a Dubuque Catholic Hospital. She had found a note to call Dr. Wiggins in Stanley’s wallet. I told her she had the right number. She said, “I can’t stay on the phone, but the person you are guardian to is in our hospital. They are euthanizing him. He had a stroke five days ago. They have put him in a room away from other patients, have labeled him DNR [do not resuscitate] and NPO [nothing by mouth] and put him on high doses of Lasix. That’s all I can tell you. I can’t say anymore. I can’t stand to watch it so I had to call you.” She told me the name of the hospital, the floor number and room where Stanley was.
Fast and forceful action
I straightaway called the floor nurses station and asked if Stanley Nowak was a patient. They said yes. I informed them that I wanted all his medical records immediately faxed to me in Corpus Christi. I was nearly blind with rage at a Catholic hospital doing such a horrible thing.
Within minutes, all the records came and it was as the social worker had said. I paged the doctor on the record and, in no uncertain terms, told him I wanted a feeding tube and IV fluids put in immediately. If he refused, I promised to be on the next plane to meet with an attorney in Dubuque and my first stop would be the archbishop’s office. I threatened him with every possible action that could be taken.
My next call was to the hospital’s CEO, who was a nun. I told her everything. She said, “Let me investigate this. I will call you right back.” She called back in 10 minutes and said, “It is exactly as you described. I am horrified.” The tubes were put in my friend while I consulted with an Iowa attorney from the Catholic directory. The attorney said he would arrange a chancery meeting or a press conference in front of the hospital, if need be.
I arranged with two doctor friends for a bed in a stroke center in Corpus Christi to facilitate Stanley’s recovery. Once the tubes were in and he started to revive, I told the physician who ordered his death that I wanted my friend returned to Texas on an air ambulance the next morning. The physician said the hospital in Dubuque would not be willing to do that due to the extremely high cost. He was aggressively in favor of letting my friend die, calling him “a vegetable.”
At this point, my husband took charge of dealing with this cruel physician. My husband said, “You don’t know my wife, but it would be in the hospital’s best interest to do as she asks. She will be unrelenting.” Still, I was not sure they would do it.
“Just watch me.”
I called the CEO back and told her I had spoken to a pilot for the air ambulance service and he would need $10,000 from the hospital to transport Stanley to me the next morning. She said they would call a board meeting immediately. I told my husband what was happening and he said, “Allison, homeless people don’t ride in Lear Jet air ambulances just because you want them to. It won’t happen. Only millionaires have this at their fingertips.” I responded, “Just watch me.”
This had all happened within 12 hours of that first call from the concerned social worker telling me they were killing my friend. In another hour, the pilot called to say the $10,000 from the hospital was in his account and he would pick up Stanley in the next few minutes and fly him to Texas. By this time Stanley was lucid and talking. Within hours, I was at the Corpus Christi airport with an ambulance to transport him. I followed in my car to the stroke center.
I was terrified Stanley wouldn’t recognize me at all. They put him in bed and then I came in. He knew me right away, grabbed my hand and pulled me next to him. He would not let go. He was crying and said, “They tried to kill me.” Over and over he said that. I knew then he would be okay. He was afraid for me to leave him that evening, fearful that the Corpus Christi stroke center would try to hurt him also.
In a week, Stanley was walking and eating and going through a stroke rehab program. I cannot tell you what pleasure it gave me to forward progress reports to the doctor who ordered his death in Iowa.
Everything in this story occurred over a 24 hour period. I did not have the luxury of a meltdown. I had to get to work to save a life from four states away.
My friend died some months later, but he was able to receive last rites and make a last confession, as well as have a Catholic Mass and burial.
In a stunning turn of events, the Dubuque hospital filed Medicare claims on my friend for “stroke rehab.” Fraud, on top of trying to kill a patient! Medicare sent me copies of the bills they received and I told them the truth. Medicare began a fraud investigation against the Catholic Hospital System of Dubuque. I had to give sworn statements. It was very upsetting. A bloodbath followed. The hospital was investigated and fined. The doctor who ordered Stanley’s death was censured for life on his record for “failing to nourish and hydrate a patient he admitted.” It is on his permanent professional record wherever he goes.
We must be willing to go to great lengths to save a life.
When we call ourselves “patient advocates,” we must be willing to go to great lengths to save a life. To be politically savvy. To be threatening and aggressive when needed. And to be fearless. We must be willing to take on any CEO in our path, a diocese if necessary, and even the archbishop himself.
But, I would not have been able to save Stanley’s life had I not gotten a call from a very brave hospital social worker with a conscience. If not for that call, my friend would have been euthanized and buried without me every knowing what happened to him.
Allison Wiggins was raised in Norman, Oklahoma. In 1993, she moved to Austin, Texas to pursue a degree in psychology. She is a speaker and lecturer on family counseling issues, volunteerism, and many other topics. From 1986 to 1989, Allison was a volunteer counselor and fundraiser for Hospice Austin. From 1990 to 1994, she had a private practice in Marriage and Family counseling in Austin. She retired in 1994 and moved to Corpus Christi where she worked as a full time volunteer for Catholic Charities. In 1999, Allison moved to San Antonio to be a full time grandmother and parish volunteer. She attends Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church.
Allison is married to Robert Wiggins, M.D. They have one daughter, Elizabeth, and a granddaughter, Lily.