Don Esco, 81, shakily stood up and approached the witness stand, relying on a cane to hold him steady. He raised his right hand, said the oath, and took his seat. The focus of a court hearing Aug. 2, Esco was questioned for the next hour and a half on the events surrounding his wife’s death and why he thought the care provided for her was inadequate.
Deputy Attorney General Steven Muni began his questioning with an inquiry into Esco’s health. Esco said his physical condition was “not good,” noting he had upcoming spinal surgery and suffers from diabetes, Parkinson’s, chronic pulmonary problems and sleep apnea. He’s also lost 25 pounds in the last three months.
Muni then asked about Johnnie, Esco’s wife, whose death led to charges of elder abuse against nurses Donna Palmer and Rebecca Smith. They had been married almost 61 years when she died. The couple met when they were 14 years old. In recent years, she suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia, and had digestive problems, specifically constipation.
Muni then moved on to the events surrounding Johnnie Esco’s death. In February of 2008, Esco called an ambulance for his wife, who was “running a temperature” and he “couldn’t bring it down.” He said she “wasn’t real steady on her feet, but she could walk.” Alzheimer’s had taken her ability to hold conversations with Don, but she could feed herself, he said, and she could “make her wants known to me.”
Johnnie was at Marshall Hospital for “10 or 11 days” for pneumonia. Dr. Bradley Barnhill then authorized her move to the El Dorado Care Facility near the hospital. Barnhill told Don that Johnnie “needed a little physical conditioning,” Esco recalled. Esco was told it would take about two weeks.
Esco would visit his wife every day for “four to eight hours” and would often take her to the dining room. She recognized him “most of the time.” He noted nursing staff would come in and ask how they were doing, but would not take vitals.
“Every person who came in, I asked about bowel movements. They said everything’s fine,” Esco testified. He never bothered to use the call button, he said, because when others used it, it would take between 10 and 15 minutes to get a response. “To me, it was useless.” He only had one occasion to use it, during the last week of the stay.
Esco explained that his wife was “getting more distant” and was going through occupational therapy, trying to fit “square pegs into square holes, round pegs into round holes,” he said. “When she didn’t understand, the therapist started belittling her, telling her a child could do it” and calling Johnnie “stupid.”
Muni then shifted questions to the final days of Johnnie’s life. Esco explained that on March 5, 2008, during his daily visit, he found his wife unconscious and non-responsive. She had bruises on her arms, chin and thigh, and a laceration on her right little finger, where she wore a ring. The ring was missing. “Skin was hanging down,” Esco said. Blood from the wound was on the comforter. She was treated, but in the six hours he stayed with Johnnie, her condition did not improve.
The next day, Esco arrived before noon. “She was burning up, moaning, hurting, non-responsive,” he said. Her skin was hot to the touch, he said. He demanded that she be sent back to the hospital immediately. A nurse told him she would “take care of it,” so Don sat with his wife, “waiting for some action.” A second nurse came in, but did not know when an ambulance would arrive. Neither took any vital signs, Esco said.
At 6 p.m., Esco walked over to Marshall Hospital and requested an ambulance. Johnnie arrived a half hour later. “She had a high temperature, was hurting,” he said again. “She was moaning and groaning, touching her stomach.” Esco said his wife’s stomach was “extended, swollen.” He said he had noticed it “when I went to the center that day. I pointed it out to staff.”
Muni made a quick side bar, asking if he talked to Palmer on March 6, to which Esco replied that, at the time, he didn’t even know who Palmer was.
Under Muni’s direction, Esco continued the narrative. He was told his wife would need immediate operation after she had gone through a battery of tests. He was told her “chances of surviving are nil, and even if she survives, she’d had no quality of life,” Esco said. Her colon was impacted. “Constipated. Full of stool,” he said. When the doctor asked for Esco’s decision on what to do, “Reluctantly, I said, ‘Make her comfortable.’”
The next day, they moved her to a room in the hospital from the ER. Esco said his wife reached out to him, “she gripped my hand for two hours, until she died.”
Palmer’s attorney, Patrick Hanly, then took over, mostly asking questions in an attempt to clarify what Esco had said in a deposition from 2009. He questioned Esco on whether Johnnie had to be disimpacted three times, but Esco could only remember one in January 2008. Hanly told Esco that Esco had said she was impacted even while under his care and on prescription medication.
When Hanly asked if Esco had been frustrated with the staff of Marshall, Esco replied that he was “glad they observed, cured, and took care of it,” referring to her constipation.
Hanly focused on this for a few minutes, comparing the five days she was impacted at Marshall to the four at the care center, but Esco was frustrated only with the care center. “Every day, I would quiz the staff that came in. They answered, ‘Everything’s fine. Don’t worry.’” He did not quiz the Marshall staff, as “They were on top of it.”
He then answered questions regarding Barnhill, and how the doctor had created a plan to treat Johnnie’s constipation in her last few days. He said he did not complain to anyone at the care center, nor was he invited to a care meeting regarding his wife; he was unaware they existed. He also did not mention constipation or impaction on a questionnaire from Feb. 29, 2008, which Hanly produced.
Hanly also questioned whether it could have been Johnnie’s roommate at the care facility that took the ring from her finger, as the roommate was described as “aggressive,” or if it could have been Johnnie herself. Esco did not think so. He also “took exception to the record” that his wife had wandered the halls at night. “If she had taken her medication, it would not happen.” He did later admit that, when at home, she would get up most nights to go to the bathroom.
Esco also took exception to his wife’s death certificate, which lists pulmonary embolism as the cause of death. He also admitted he had not seen abuse while there, or “had I seen it, I would have put up for charges.”
The man was then dismissed, and Brian Turner from the Board of Nursing then stepped up, requesting that Judge Douglas C. Phimister change Palmer’s bail conditions, which the judge denied.
The next hearing for the case will be on Oct. 29 at 8 a.m. in Department 7.
Contact Cole Mayer at 530-344-5068 or email@example.com. Follow @CMayerMtDemo.