Rebecca Zeni lived her younger years in a fashion many girls dream of – she was a successful model in New York City. She also served in a naval yard during World War II and held a position at a TV station in the Chicago area. By the time she entered Shepherd Hills nursing home, in LaFayette, Georgia, Zeni had lived a full life.
However, her passing was far less dignified. At the age of 93, Zeni died a slow, painful death, ultimately losing her life from scabies. The parasites crawled under her skin and began laying their eggs until, eventually, they had taken over her entire body without any intervention from nursing home personnel. A medical examiner discovered the resident died of septicemia that had overtaken her body.
Zeni’s daughter, Pamela Puryear, subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against PruittHealth, the for-profit organization that owns the home. She said she visited her mother nearly every day since her move to Shepherd Hills in 2013 and grew concerned after noticing what appeared to be a rash developing on her body, then spreading.
“At the very end, her skin was decomposing. At that point, she was really, really ill from it,” Lance Lourie, the family’s attorney said. “The lawsuit is a suit for damages for the horrible pain and suffering Ms. Zeni went through unnecessarily.”
Puryear didn’t realize the facility had even experienced a scabies outbreak when she first noticed the rash. “[Zeni] had rashes and [the staff] didn’t acknowledge that it was scabies. She had rashes and the daughter kept trying to get to the bottom of what was going on,” Lourie explains. “The nursing home knew of the problem with scabies that was going on with a number of their patients and staff, but they covered that up. They didn’t tell the other families about this.”
Georgia Department of Public Health officials, in fact, were allegedly notified about outbreaks at Shepherd Hills several times but failed to inspect the home, which had a history of health violations and routinely disregarded policies and procedures in place to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease. Now, Shepherd Hills has the lowest rating for Medicare-based health inspection results – one star – and it has been fined over $300,000.
“The daughter did the best she could, and she was constantly reassured that everything was being taken care of,” Lourie says of the way the situation was handled after Puryear reported it. “It was horrible for Pam to see her mother in this condition and to see the suffering her mother endured at the end. She was upset and horrified.”
Avi Mukherjee, a professor at Marshall University who specializes in healthcare management, said historically high staff turnover rates and low pay leads to decreased morale and often results in diminished quality of care, across the board, for a resident spending the remaining years of his or her life in a nursing home. “The key is to understand that low service quality and negative outcomes for patients and residents is not in the interest of the long-term survival of these companies,” Mukherjee said, suggesting this is simply not the focus of those at the top.