Moment by moment: A woman inmate's agonizing final hours

Bonnie Rocheleau died of double pneumonia last March at Pulaski State Prison. For months, she suffered from COPD, yet it wasn’t until she almost stopped breathing entirely that the prison medical staff decided she should be hospitalized.

Now her family has notified the state that it is seeking $1 million for damages stemming from the mental pain and suffering the 58-year-old Valdosta woman endured prior to her death.

Bonnie Rocheleau and her daughter.

The family's ante litem notice, required of parties wishing to sue state agencies, indicates that defendants would include both the Georgia Department of Corrections and Georgia Correctional Health Care, the branch of Augusta University that contacts with the DOC to operate and staff prison medical units.

It also provides a nearly hourly account of Rocheleau’s final days, pointing to the dysfunction that held sway at Pulaski under Dr. Yvon Nazaire, who served as the medical director at the Hawkinsville prison for nine years until his dismissal last year.

“The failure to obtain and administer proper medical attention for Ms. Rocheleau directly and proximately caused her death,” an attorney for her estate, Lance Lourie, wrote.

Rocheleau’s death was among those detailed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year in its series on women who died while in Nazaire’s care at Pulaski and Emanuel Women’s Facility. The AJC found that nine women died under questionable circumstances and three others left prison with cancers that went undiagnosed despite symptoms that experts said should have been obvious. One of those women, Sherri Cavender, has since died from colon cancer that spread to her liver.

You can read about the cancer patients' ordeals by clicking here.

As a result of the AJC’s stories, Nazaire was placed on leave and ultimately fired. A review by Augusta University physician and administrator Dr. William Kanto subsequently determined that at least three of the deaths cited by the newspaper were due to substandard care and that women in the Georgia  prison system have generally received medical treatment that’s inferior to men.

Rocheleau, who had three grown daughters, died as she was nearing the end of a seven-year sentence for vehicular homicide. She pleaded guilty to that charge in 2009 after an accident in which the vehicle she was driving crossed a highway median and struck an SUV carrying seven people. One was killed.

According to Lourie’s letter putting the state on notice, Rocheleau visited the infirmary at Pulaski to complain that she couldn’t breathe three days in a row before she died. Each time, the document says, she was returned to the general prison population after receiving drugs or breathing treatments.

On her third trip -- at 4:15 a.m. on March 19 -- she was “wheezing, sweating and had an ashen color,” the letter says. Moreover, her blood pressure was low, her pulse rate was high, her respirations were elevated and her oxygen levels were low.

Still, that wasn’t enough for anyone to think to send her to the hospital or even contact Nazaire. Instead, the letter says, she was given a steroid and another breathing treatment and returned to her dormitory room.

Five hours later, the letter says, Rocheleau was recalled to the infirmary to be seen by Nazaire, who had her transferred to Taylor Regional Hospital for a chest X-ray.

Yet even then she wasn’t admitted. Following the X-ray, she was returned to the prison infirmary, where she was asked to lie on a bed so arterial blood gas could be drawn. During that procedure, her lack of oxygen was so pronounced that her skin turned blue or purple, the letter asserts.

At that point, according to the letter, Nazaire received a phone call informing him of the results of Rocheleau's X-ray. That led him to begin making arrangements for her to be returned to the hospital. A 911 call was made. But by then time had run out. When the ambulance arrived at the emergency room, Rocheleau  was unresponsive. Thirty-nine minutes later, she was pronounced dead.

Experts in pulmonary medicine told the AJC last year that, while pneumonia is unpredictable, people with COPD are more susceptible to the disease. Consequently, they require a heightened level of alertness to breathing issues.

When the AJC questioned Nazaire about Rocheleau’s death last June, he defended his actions, pointing out that it was his decision to make sure she had a chest X-ray.

“When she came (to the infirmary), I said, `She’s not in great shape,’ and got her an X-ray,” he said.

Writing to her brother, Carl Fender, in December 2014, Rocheleau, a former smoker, described how her COPD had “kicked in.” But she expressed hope that she would be paroled before the end of 2015, allowing her to see "a real doctor."

“I’m missing out on the grand babies and everybody else’s life,” she wrote. “Oh how it sucks in here! Maybe I’ll come home by August or hopefully sooner.”

That wasn't to be.

Read the state's review of Dr. Nazaire:

Click here to hear women inmates tell their own stories.

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About the Author

Danny Robbins
Danny Robbins
Danny Robbins in an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.