The Front Page: Weakening McPherson fought food, medicine

Weakening McPherson fought food, medicine

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

ęSt. Petersburg Times, published July 10, 1997


CLEARWATER -- Fourteen days after entering a Church of Scientology retreat in good physical health, Lisa McPherson was so weak she couldn't stand, according to church records released Wednesday.

Yet for three days after that, church staff members continued to care for her in a room at the Fort Harrison Hotel. As members of an organization that reviles traditional psychiatric care, their hope was that McPherson, who was 36, would somehow pull out of her psychotic tailspin.

For two weeks, the records show, church staffers had tried with limited success to give McPherson protein shakes and other fluids, bits of solid food, vitamins, sedatives and herbal remedies.

Often, she resisted by slapping them, punching them, screaming at them, tripping them, kicking them, poking at their eyes, breaking things and spitting out food.

One caregiver tried for more than four hours to get her to swallow three herbal capsules mixed with mashed bananas and protein drink. She eventually held McPherson's nose, hoping to get her to swallow.

Two days into McPherson's stay, another staffer wrote: "She has difficulty even to swallow a bit of water."

One church staffer became so distraught, she "sat in the corner and cried for a while."

Despite these problems, the Scientology staffers who cared for McPherson -- an assortment of church medical officers, clerks, guards, librarians and administrators -- did not take her to a hospital until her 17th day at the hotel.

By then, according to the records, McPherson's skin had turned a septic color. Her breathing was labored and raspy during the 45-minute drive from downtown Clearwater to a New Port Richey hospital.

In the emergency room, the doctor waiting for her was a Scientologist, too. Dr. David I. Minkoff "looked at her and he could see that she was dead," the records state.

Minkoff also had a question for Janis Johnson, the church medical officer who oversaw much of McPherson's care and drove her to the hospital in a van.

Why hadn't she brought McPherson in earlier?

Johnson, a Scientology staffer since 1994, is a medical doctor who is not licensed in Florida. She checked in on McPherson during her stay at the Fort Harrison and asked the staffers to give her updates.

Her answer to Minkoff: "Lisa had not looked this sick before today."

The records are part of a Hillsborough County lawsuit in which McPherson's family contends the Church of Scientology is responsible for her death.

They also will play a role in Pinellas County, where prosecutors and police are investigating whether McPherson's death was caused by "criminal negligence or other criminal conduct."

This week, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office threatened to take legal action against the church for failing to provide what it sees as key records of McPherson's final hours at the hotel.

Although McPherson stayed at the Fort Harrison until Dec. 5, 1995, the day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, records released Wednesday end on Dec. 2.

Kennan Dandar, the Tampa lawyer representing McPherson's family, said the records submitted so far are damaging enough to the church's legal defense. "How much more damaging are the ones they're holding back?" Dandar asked.

Laura Vaughan, one of several local lawyers representing the church, said Scientology officials are not trying to hide anything. She said they have looked for the records at church offices in Los Angeles, Clearwater and Dallas and can't find them.

Vaughan said some records already provided to prosecutors contain details of McPherson's final hours, as do statements that church staffers have given to police.

McPherson was taken to the Fort Harrison on Nov. 18, 1995, after several of her fellow Scientologists intervened at Morton Plant Hospital. Paramedics took her there after she disrobed at the scene of a minor auto accident.

Vaughan said the newly released records tell a story of church volunteers "trying their level best" to feed McPherson and ensure she didn't hurt herself. She said they could have cared for McPherson at another location, perhaps someone's home, but chose the Fort Harrison.

Scientology is a leading critic of the psychiatric profession, in large part because of psychiatry's use of psychotropic drugs to bring patients under control.

With rest, nourishment and a quiet environment, Scientologists "believe that you come out of your psychotic state," Vaughan said. "They say they have had some success."

She said they viewed McPherson's problems at the Fort Harrison as mental, not physical. But a key question in the case will be when McPherson's physical problems became a greater threat than her mental state.

According to Pinellas County Medical Examiner Joan Wood, McPherson died of a blood clot in her left lung brought on by bed rest and severe dehydration. Wood also has said McPherson went without fluids for five to 10 days and was unconscious for up to 48 hours before her death.

Wood and McPherson's family have said the condition of McPherson's body indicates a slow, painful decline that should have caused someone to get medical treatment for her much sooner than church staffers did.

But church attorneys are arguing the blood clot that killed her could have formed spontaneously and that no church member could have known about it. They said the newly released records are evidence that Wood's claims are wrong.

According to experts interviewed this week, McPherson would have been treated differently had she gone to a hospital or a psychiatric facility.

Doctors have several methods of feeding violent patients who refuse food, said Dr. David Sheehan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida, and Dr. Anthony Reading, chairman of the university's psychiatry department.

Those methods include feedings by intravenous tubes and stomach tubes, they said. Often, psychotic patients will accept the tubes without problems. But also, they said, there are loose restraints that can give violent patients some freedom of movement while also keeping them from removing the tubes.

Also, their care would probably include treatment with drugs to reduce symptoms that keep them from eating, they said.

Sheehan said, "You never try to force feed someone," as one Scientologist did when she held McPherson's nose.

Vaughan, the Scientology attorney, said the maneuver is "an age-old trick" used often by parents. The Scientologists "were trying to do anything they could to get someone who is extremely mentally disturbed to eat," she said.

But Sheehan said it can also force food into the lungs, causing death.

Before the advent of drugs that quelled psychotic behavior, feeding psychotic patients was a big problem that often resulted in patients becoming malnourished, some even dying, the doctors said.

In cases such as McPherson's, where the caregivers are lay people, "there's a certain point at which things are beyond their ability to manage," Sheehan said. "Obviously, they weren't trying to harm her. They did their best, but they just didn't have the expertise."


Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

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