Crime & Justice

Prisoner's wife talks about her husband's prison cancer treatment

Larry and Teri Vanderberg
Larry and Teri Vanderberg
Courtesy Teri Vanderberg

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Update, March 8, 2013, 11:19 a.m.: Larry Vanderberg died in prison in February 2012.

Teri Vanderberg of Santa Ana said a year passed between her husband Larry’s first complaint of a swelling in his ear and throat and its diagnosis as lymph node cancer that was spreading through his body. His initial requests for an exam were ignored for four months, according to her and to a summary of his care that Larry Vanderberg wrote.

When he finally began treatment for the cancer, his family had difficulty getting real-time information about his care.

“My husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2008," says Teri Vanderberg. "They don't tell the families where or when or where they will be transferred to a hospital for chemo – radiation, etc."

For security of inmates and others, prison authorities do not disclose where inmates are taken for medical treatment outside prison, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"Prison transport is generally confidential," she says.

Inmates may give permission for the prison to give information about their medical condition to specific people named in a release form, but some inmates fail to complete the forms, or the forms expire, or the people named in them move away, says Joyce Hayhoe, spokeswoman for California Prison Health Care Services, the federally-appointed receiver that oversees inmate medical care.

As a result, some families may not get current information, but instead rely on other inmates to relay news of their loved ones.

Larry Vanderberg's release expired in March 2007, so when his wife and daughter were trying to get official information about him in September 2008, they were denied.

"[In 2008] three inmates called me on a Sunday to tell me my husband had been brought back to his cell very late on a Friday night from three straight days of chemo," Vanderberg said. "He was too weak to leave his cell for meals or fluids. He was delirious, and didn't respond when his cellies (inmates in neighboring cells) called out to him, to see how he was.

“They called me to tell me to report his condition to the warden Monday morning," says Vanderberg. "Monday morning my husband was carried by another inmate down the staircase into a wheelchair where he was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital for pneumonia and dehydration from three days without fluids."

Families may call the receiver's inmate health care inquiry hotline to get medical information about an inmate. The Controlled Correspondence and Litigation Support Unit that handles the calls promises to acknowledge contacts within one day, and to provide a response within five business days, Hayhoe says.

The prison system has plans to computerize medical records but for now they are not yet kept in electronic form, so the unit's nine workers must get information sent to them on paper, via fax, or by scanning them into an e-mail, she says.

Vanderberg says: “His care from that point on was much better than what prisoners receive, only due to the fact that I was on top of it and was not afraid to contact Sacramento when I had complaints, which were many. My husband was diagnosed cancer-free 2009 – however, he said without my vigilant watch over what they do, he would never have received the care he did.”