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Family Speaks Out After Fla. State Mental Hospital Nurse Charged With Neglect

A former nurse at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee could face jail time after a pregnant patient lost her child. The incident sparked an investigation by the State Attorney’s Office and Florida Department of Children and Families.  Now the woman’s family is speaking out.

Ken Wills and Bobbie Atkins are sitting at a kitchen table, piled high with boxes, folders and documents—all from the state of Florida chronicling the events that led to the birth of a severely brain injured baby who later died. Ken Wills says his daughter has a history of mental illness. He first noticed something was wrong around July of last year when he went by her home and saw her key in the outside of the door:

“I asked my daughter if she knew her key as on the outside of the door and she responded that the key didn’t work. And she took the key and threw it on the floor of her closet.”   

Wills says he had his daughter evaluated at Tallahassee Behavioral Clinic, where she was ultimately kept for observation. She was later moved to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. There are two types of patients there: those who are declared criminally insane, and others, who have been civilly committed. Wills’ daughter was one of the latter. But as Department of Children and Families explains,  the hospital wasn’t able to handle her care.

“As you can understand, most of our residents have undergone psychiatric care or been in the judicial system, it’s very rare for us to have a pregnant resident at Florida State Hospital,”  said DCF spokesman Joe Follick. 

The woman was admitted October 4, 2011. She was pregnant at the time. Her father, Ken Wills, wrote a letter in August to the courts, asking them to carefully monitor his daughter and her unborn child.

At 38 weeks pregnant on December 23, 2011, the woman went into labor.  The attending nurse at the time, Kathryn Kottle, and others ignored her calls for help. The woman called authorities but hospital staff told them she was fine.  Eventually she was taken to the hospital’s emergency room. Bobbie Atkins, the woman’s mother, who is also a retired registered nurse, reads from the notes from another nurse who recorded what happened next:

“When resident arrived to ER, she was anxious, complained of decreased abdominal pain.. and needing to use bathroom,  standing, holding abdomen, with facial grimacing…difficult for resident to lie down, spitting up…examined by doctor…with difficult contractions, resident twisting in [pain]."   

Ultimately Ken Wills and Bobbie Atkins’ daughter was airlifted from Florida State Hospital to Capital Regional Medical Center.

 “The baby came out on the helicopter, attached to the mother, with the head on the floor with everyone looking at the baby on the floor of the helicopter not breathing, and the mother got no help,” said Atkins.

The child, named Elon Wills, was transported to Tallahassee Memorial, where he was diagnosed with no brain activity. He died August 3rd of this year at eight months old.  The family has requested numerous documents from the hospital and the state but some, like the Inspector General’s report, are heavily redacted.

“There were doctors present the 23rd of December. And I don’t feel there’s been enough attention has been paid to the doctors. I think they were derelict in their duties. This isn’t how you treat a vulnerable pregnant mother," said Ken Wills.

Since January of this year the attending nurse Kathryn Cottle has been fired, and at least two other supervisors were let go or quit. A senior physician who was placed on administrative leave has been reinstated. Florida Department of Children and Families spokesman Joe Follick says his agency is expecting a lawsuit:

“We have tried to provide assistance and resources to the family involved in this case, but they’ve indicated they might sue us, so that’s put a limit on  the assistance we can offer. The most valuable legacy out of this is that we do everything possible to make sure it never happens again.”  

Ken Wills and Bobbie Atkins say eventually they’ll sue, but for now, they’re occupied by something greater than legal action. And that is trying to reconnect with their daughter.  Wills says she blames him for the death of her son, and hasn’t spoken to him in months:

“I have a lot of sorrow in my heart about this, and I feel so much hurt for my daughter, and the decision to do what I did, I did it in the best interest of my daughter.”   

Nurse Kathryn Cottle is being charged with a felony for her role in the events. An arraignment hearing has been scheduled for November 8.

For more news updates, follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter @HatterLynn