The widow of late Native American activist Russell Means has filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit accusing medical providers affiliated with Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe of a misdiagnosis that led to her husband’s death.
Means became an iconic figure in the 1970s for his brash criticisms and attention-grabbing protests against injustices endured by Indians. He survived gunshot wounds on three separate occasions and a stabbing in the belly, but ultimately died of esophageal cancer on Oct. 22, 2012, at the age of 72.
In a suit filed in state District Court in Las Vegas, N.M., Pearl Means accuses doctors who work at clinics owned by Christus of overlooking obvious signs of her husband’s cancer that allowed his condition to worsen as it went untreated for months. Pearl Means did not return calls seeking comment.
In court documents, lawyers for the hospital deny any wrongdoing.
“Our hearts go out to the friends and family of Russell C. Means for their loss of a loved one,” Christus St. Vincent spokesman Arturo Delgado said.
But he said that the New Mexico Medical Review Commission determined there was no evidence of professional negligence on the part of the hospital related to Russell Means’ death.
Under New Mexico law, the commission, made up of three doctors and three lawyers, reviews medical malpractice claims. Its decisions are not public and are inadmissible in court, so the hospital’s statement could not be confirmed, said Randy Marshall, executive director of the New Mexico Medical Society, which oversees the commission.
The suit accuses doctors of failing to diagnose Russell Means’ cancer during a series of visits between February and April 2011 to clinics owned by Christus.
When Russell Means’ symptoms persisted, he sought a second opinion from doctors at UCLA Medical Center in July 2011, and was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, tongue, lymph nodes and lungs. He underwent aggressive treatment, including radiation therapy through the end of the year, and in August 2012, he learned during a doctor’s visit that his cancer had advanced, according to court records.
The defendants named in the suit are the Endoscopy Center of Santa Fe, Dr. Fenimore Sartorius, Rodeo Family Medicine, Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, Northern New Mexico Gastroenterology Associates, Dr. Cornelius Dooley and physician assistant Bonnie Giachetti.
Russell Means complained that he was coughing, spitting up blood and having difficulty swallowing when he visited one of the clinics March 3, 2011, the lawsuit states. An esophagogastroduodenoscopy was performed six days later.
According to the lawsuit, Pearl Means and her husband were concerned that cancer would be found, and expressed that to Dooley.
“Mrs. Means was reassured that it was negative other than for a possible enlarged tonsil, even though Russell Means had previously undergone a tonsillectomy as a child,” the lawsuit states. “Dr. Dooley’s diagnosis was Esophagitis, reflux.”
In late April 2011, Means returned to the clinic and complained that his symptoms had not improved. He continued to experience pain, loss of appetite and weight loss, leading him to seek care in July 2011 at UCLA Medical Center, according to the suit. There, a doctor visually recognized a tumor near the base of Russell Means’ tongue and ordered a biopsy the same day that confirmed it was malignant, according to the suit.
A doctor’s visit 13 months later in August 2012 revealed Russell Means’ cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and lungs. Two months later, he was dead.
As a leader in the American Indian Movement, he attained fame in 1970 when television cameras flocked to Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving to film Indian protesters seizing the Mayflower II replica ship. Means orchestrated the event.
He shrouded President George Washington’s bust on Mount Rushmore, S.D., in 1972 with a sheet to protest broken treaties. And the following year, he led a band of hundreds in an occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., during a 71-day standoff with federal agents. Two Indians were killed in gunfire, and one agent was paralyzed.
Russell Means later served a year in prison for a 1974 riot in South Dakota, and over time alienated even some in the Indian rights movement, who criticized him for prioritizing his own interests.
He ran for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1987 but was defeated by Ron Paul, who went on to represent Texas in Congress as a Republican and twice sought that party’s presidential nomination.
During the latter part of his life, Russell Means became involved in acting and music. He had roles in the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers (1994) and Pathfinder (2007). He recorded CDs of Indian-themed music.
Pearl Means was Russell Means’ fifth wife. They wed in 1999. Together, they had a home in San Jose, N.M., where Pearl Means still resides, and a ranch in Porcupine, S.D., where Russell Means spent his final days.
The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.