LAFAYETTE, Georgia — A Georgia nursing home resident who died from a scabies infestation is believed to have been eaten alive over the course of months or years.
According to a pending lawsuit filed by the family, 93-year-old Rebecca Zeni died in 2015 from scabies at the facility. The autopsy report shows the cause of death as “septicemia due to crusted scabies.” State health officials were notified about a scabies outbreak at the nursing home multiple times, but did not inspect the LaFayette, Ga. facility.
A forensic pathologist who reviewed the case estimates millions of parasitic mites essentially ate Zeni alive over several months or possibly years.
Zeni’s family say their mother lived the American dream. She worked in a naval yard during World War II; modeled in New York City, and worked at a TV station in Chicago.
Zeni’s daughter, who declined to be interviewed on-camera, says she moved her mother into Shepherd Hills Nursing Home in 2010. Health records show Zeni suffered from dementia.
“I don’t understand how you can allow a human being to suffer needlessly,” said Mike Prieto, one of two attorneys representing Zeni’s family in a lawsuit against Pruitt Health, which operates Shepherd Hills Nursing Home.
Scabies is a painful, but treatable skin condition caused when parasitic mites burrow into your skin, lay eggs and survive off of your body. Pictures of Zeni before her death show skin flaking off and one of her hands blackened.
Stephen Chance, another attorney representing the family, claims staff were told not to touch Zeni’s hand. “There was a conversation at this nursing home with a healthcare provider about being careful about touching Ms. Zeni’s hand for fear that it might fall off her body,” claims Chance in an interview.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Kris Sperry, former chief medical examiner at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, reviewed Zeni’s autopsy report. He says he’s personally conducted more than 6,000 autopsies and has supervised more than 80,000 others.
“This is one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever seen in my career as a forensic pathologist,” Sperry said.
Sperry estimates hundreds of millions of mites were living inside Zeni at the time of her death. He doesn’t think it’s an exaggeration to assume she was essentially eaten alive and that she likely died a painful death.
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“Having seen what I’ve seen with Ms. Zeni, I think that is frankly a good characterization,” said Sperry. “I would seriously consider calling this a homicide by neglect.”
Pruitt Health’s chairman, communications director and an attorney representing the company did not respond to request for comment. According to a response to the lawsuit, Pruitt attorneys denied all of the claims outlined in Zeni’s lawsuit, writing “[Pruitt Health] denies that it is a medical or healthcare provider and it, therefore, owed no legal duty to Plaintiff or Ms. Rebecca Zeni for which it could be held liable in this litigation.”
According to records obtained from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), state officials were notified of a scabies outbreak at Zeni’s facility in 2013 and 2015 before her death.
In its June 4th 2015 report, it shows at least 35 residents and staff were exposed to scabies. Instead of inspecting the facility in person, a state health department employee emailed a manual to the facility on how to treat scabies. Eleven days later, Zeni passed away.
According to DPH spokesperson Nancy Nydam, the agency isn’t required to inspect facilities when its notified about a scabies infestation. Despite the low reported outbreaks, Nydam says the agency considers scabies infestations “not necessarily uncommon” events at nursing homes.
While DPH records show no reported cases of scabies at Shepherd Hills in 2014, the facility’s own records show otherwise. According to the nursing home’s infection logs submitted into the case file, there were at least seven cases of scabies at the facility on October 22, 2014. DPH has no record of the facility notifying state health officials.
While DPH isn’t required to inspect facilities after learning about an outbreak, Nydam says its typical protocol to alert the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH), which performs annual inspections of state nursing homes and responds when it receives a complaint from the public.
DPH says it has no record of staff notifying DCH regulators about the outbreak. When asked for documentation showing DCH was notified about scabies or inspection records related to any scabies outbreak at Shepherd Hills, DCH spokesperson Fiona Roberts emailed, “DCH does not have any records responsive to that issue.”