Picture: Pexels
Picture: Pexels

Woman, 93, eaten alive by parasites at a US nursing home

By Kristine Phillips Time of article published May 3, 2018

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Warning: Contains graphic images

Pictures of Rebecca Zeni during her younger years showed her with flawless skin, well-defined eyebrows and long, thick lashes. Her hair, parted in the middle, was neatly tied with a bow behind her ear.

Her beauty could capture a room, her daughter said, but she was more than just a beautiful face.

She was a modern-day woman of the 1940s and 1950s, headstrong, career-oriented and hard-working, said Mike Prieto, a lawyer representing Zeni's family. At a time when women were expected to marry young and have children, the small-town girl from North Carolina moved to Norfolk after high school to work at the naval base there, her daughter, Pamela Puryear, said. 

She later became a model in New York City and worked as an assistant for CBS News's Mike Wallace before she married and became a stay-at-home mother.

"Her life just became exciting," her daughter said. "She thought in her mind that everybody's life is just like this."

But the once-vibrant woman later found herself living in a nursing home, where she suffered a long, painful death, her family's attorneys said. Parasitic mites had burrowed under her skin, living and laying eggs all over her body. By the time she died, vesicles and thick crusts had formed on her skin. Her right hand had turned nearly black, and Prieto said her fingers were about to fall off.

The scabies that infected Zeni's body had become so severe that bacteria seeped into her bloodstream. She died in 2015 at age 93.

Zeni's death is now the subject of a lawsuit filed against PruittHealth, a for-profit company that owns dozens of nursing homes, including Shepherd Hills in LaFayette, Georgia, where Zeni lived for five years until she died. 

Shepherd Hills, a nursing home that had multiple scabies outbreaks in recent years and a history of health violations, failed to follow policies and procedures to prevent the occurrence and spread of the highly contagious disease, documents say. Instead of providing the care that Zeni desperately needed, the lawsuit alleges that the nursing home allowed her to die an agonising death.

"The last six months of her life, she was in constant pain," Prieto said. "She was literally being eaten alive from inside out."

Zeni was admitted to Shepherd Hills in 2010. By then, the 87-year-old had been diagnosed with dementia, diabetes and other illnesses. She was completely dependent on others and was no longer legally qualified to stay at an assisted-living facility.

Zeni's daughter, who lives in LaFayette, was close enough to visit often.

Zeni's rashes began to appear in fall 2013, around the time that a scabies outbreak at the facility was reported to the local health department. Ten residents and 10 staffers had rashes; some were diagnosed with scabies, according to Georgia Department of Public Health records.

Another outbreak occurred in 2014, Chance said, but that was not reported to the health department. A third outbreak happened in spring 2015. Twenty residents and 15 staffers were infected, state records show.

By then, Zeni's condition had dramatically worsened. Rashes had spread to her scalp, neck, chest, shoulders, back and arms. A doctor had ordered that she be given Ivermectin, a tablet used to treat worm infections, and Elimite cream, which is used to treat scabies. But the treatments and medications were at times not given as ordered, court records say.

Zeni died June 2, 2015. An autopsy found that she died of Staphylococcus aureus septicemia due to Norwegian crusted scabies, a severe form of scabies that affects people with weak immune systems, such as the elderly. Scabies can spread rapidly in crowded places, such as nursing homes, extended-care facilities and prisons, according to the state health department.

Zeni's daughter said she watched helplessly as she visited her mother every day, unable to touch or hug the woman she loved and admired.

"It's a nightmare," she said, adding later: "There was no dignity."

Adapted from a Washington Post article

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