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Staph infection sends Pinellas jail inmate into coma

An investigation has opened into the woman's treatment.

By Jonathan Abel, Times Staff Writer
Published February 27, 2008

Dorothy Palinchik, 42, was an inmate in the Pinellas County Jail.

Michael Mullican, 47, is Dorothy Palanchik's boyfriend.

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Dorothy Palinchik was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on the eve of Valentine's Day, charged with stealing a $9 Philly cheesesteak sandwich from Publix.

Her bail was set at $250, but she didn't pay it. Her boyfriend said he offered, but Palinchik, 42, said she would rather do her time and get it over with.

Sometime over the next 10 days, Palinchik became gravely ill. On Friday, the jail sent her by ambulance to Largo Medical Center. Tuesday night, she was in a coma in critical condition.

The St. Petersburg woman is suffering from a severe case of the staph infection MRSA as well pneumonia in both lungs, according to her family. Hospital personnel have told relatives Palinchik has yet to respond to antibiotics and the prognosis is grim.

"I just can't believe that this is happening," said her mother, also named Dorothy Palinchik. "I can't believe that over a sandwich my daughter is going to die."

Palinchik's mother, sister and boyfriend claim the jail ignored Palinchik's complaints and condition.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said privacy laws prevent the Sheriff's Office from releasing many details about Palinchik's medical treatment. But when Palinchik was booked, she showed no signs of cuts or wounds that might have indicated MRSA, Pasha said.

An internal investigation is now under way into Palinchik's treatment at the jail. Pasha said that is standard practice when an inmate becomes so seriously ill.

Palinchik's boyfriend, Michael Mullican, contends that the medical care at the jail was not aggressive enough.

Mullican, 47, visited his girlfriend of 15-plus years Thursday. They talked to each other briefly through the video system set up at the jail.

Palinchik complained that she had run a 101.5-degree fever for five days. The jail staff had given her only a Motrin and a Sudafed, Mullican said she told him.

"Michael, I've never been this sick in my life," Mullican quoted her as saying. Palinchik could barely lift her head to see into the monitor. He said he complained to the staff at the jail about her treatment.

When she first landed in jail, Mullican said he offered to bail her out. "She said 'leave it alone. I'll do my time,'" Mullican said. "If I had known in hindsight."

When he saw her dragging on Thursday he said things were just moving so fast he didn't think to bail her out. That day, Palinchik was transferred from the jail's general population to its new 432-bed, $35-million medical wing.

By the next day, she was in the intensive care unit at Largo Medical Center.

On Saturday, her mother, who lives in Pompano Beach, said she received a call from a sheriff's sergeant saying her daughter was gravely ill and she had better come.

What she saw was striking: Her daughter unconscious in a hospital bed, a ventilator helping her breathe, her heart at times racing at more than 150 beats a minute.

Palinchik said she was told by a doctor that her daughter likely contracted the disease at the jail.

But tracing the origins of an infection can be very difficult, according to Roger Sanderson, a Tampa epidemiologist with the Florida Department of Health. People can have MRSA for weeks or longer without showing symptoms, he said.

"They could have carried it in. They could have acquired it there. There's no way of knowing," Sanderson said. "It's unlike diseases like flu or colds where you know that you picked up."

Sanderson said there were five factors generally associated with the spread of MRSA: crowded living quarters, close contact, cuts or abrasions, cleanliness and contaminated items and surfaces.

At the Pinellas County Jail, which was originally designed for 2,400 inmates but has seen its population reach 3,800, officials say overcrowding exacerbates problems caused by tension and germs.

Last year, when a Times reporter spent two days living in a maximum-security cell block to report on overcrowding at the Pinellas jail, an inmate warned him not to touch his mattress or pillow because staph was everywhere. Inmates didn't shake hands and wore flip-flops on their hands when doing pushups to avoid touching the floor.

And it's not just jails that are susceptible to MRSA: hospitals, assisted living facilities, locker rooms, schools and other venues can breed the infection.

Standing in front of the hospital Tuesday, Palinchik's mother said it was unreal to have her daughter's fate in the hands of a disease she had never heard of.

Palinchik, whose nickname is DeeDee, is the youngest of four children. She moved from Virginia to Florida about 20 years ago with her parents. For the last 15 or so years she had been together with Mullican, her boyfriend.

She worked as a waitress and did other odd jobs, but things were tight. Her mother sent $30 every other day or so to help support her.

She was lively, outspoken and fun loving, her family says. But she also had her share of troubles.

Last year she was charged with stealing $171.75 worth of groceries from a Sweetbay Supermarket. She pleaded no contest and was put on probation. In all, she has served more than 100 days in jail since 2000 on charges that included prostitution and violation of probation.

"I'm not going to say my sister was an angel," said Annette Olds, 48. "... But I don't think she deserved a death sentence for it. I think she was neglected the whole time she was in there complaining. I don't think anybody did anything about it."

Researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at or (727) 445-4157.


Fast facts: About MRSA

  • Staph bacteria are present in 25 to 30 percent of the population without causing any symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • About 1 percent of the population has staph bacteria that are resistant to certain kinds of antibiotics. That's where MRSA gets its name: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons MRSA guidelines emphasize the importance of screening for infections, hand washing, and awareness among inmates and staff members that skin infections should be referred quickly to the medical staff. "Containing MRSA infections in a confined setting such as a prison is extraordinarily difficult, time-consuming, and resource-intensive," the guidelines say.

[Last modified February 27, 2008, 00:24:47]

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