Soon after that news, Matthews says, a pregnant inmate who was having early contractions came up to the window and held up a tiny sac of tissue. “‘Nurse,’ she said, ‘I think I just miscarried,’” Matthews recalls. “It was extremely loud in there, the staff nurse had her hands tied, and it made me feel horrible. I often felt very concerned that patients were not going to make it through their pregnancies, and I left a lot of times feeling worthless because I couldn’t do anything about it.”

The usually healthy Matthews was then hit with a series of flu-like bouts she couldn’t shake for months.

*     *     *

Aaron McKinney
A nightmare in 2003 triggered the nerve damage in Matthews' right arm
Jeanne Rice
A nightmare in 2003 triggered the nerve damage in Matthews' right arm

In March 2003, Matthews remembers, her request for a small refrigerator to store diabetic patients’ insulin had been rejected once again. “I was so tired of asking and asking for one that I just went out and bought a used one,” she says. She later learned that the men’s jail would be receiving five new refrigerators. “I was so sick of it.”

One spring morning not long after that, Matthews came in at 4 a.m. for her shift and heard screaming. She went to the infirmary and saw the patient in the window. “I saw that her face was just swollen from having cried and cried so much. She looked at me through the glass and said, ‘I have a migraine headache, and I can’t take it anymore.’” The banging and screeching spilling from the cells on either side of her had kept her up all night.

“I had been in there lots of times when people had been screaming and yelling and things had been very bad, but never had a patient that was medical come up to the door and look me in the eyes and say, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’”

Afterward, Matthews broke out in a cold sweat. The chest pressure that had been creeping up on her during her shifts became stronger. A co-worker told her she looked pale, that she should go home. She eventually went to the doctor, who said she likely had a stress-induced ulcer. He gave her medication, and Matthews went back to work.

By now, the nightmares had begun, and she was sleeping only a few hours a night. In April, when she went back for a checkup, she broke down. “I just cried and cried and cried, and I couldn’t stop,” she says. Her doctor referred her to a string of specialists, psychiatrists and psychologists. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on, her doctors concluded, by her work environment.

The county doctor confirmed that her illness was stress-related, and she was approved for Worker’s Compensation benefits. She left her post for what she hoped would be only a short time. It’s been five years. She hasn’t been paid a dime in Worker’s Compensation in two years and is fighting for disability-insurance payments. She’d like to return to work someday, she says, but more than anything, she’d like to know that something will be done about the women’s jail. “Here were are, five years later, and the women are still in the same [infirmary] area. The only thing they’ve changed is the name.”

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