In a somewhat grainy, homemade YouTube video, Lakota elder Vernon Traversie sits in his Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation home and quietly tells his story. It’s a deeply troubling one, alleging that he left the care of a South Dakota regional hospital last summer with more than just the routine scars of open-heart surgery.
Traversie, 69, underwent double-bypass surgery at Rapid City Regional Hospital on August 26, 2011. He remained at the hospital until September 8. The day before his discharge, he said, a nurse approached him and asked him to confirm his name and birth date. When she verified who he was, she began to talk.
“‘My conscience won’t let me be,’ she said to me,” Traversie remembered. “She said, ‘It’s bothered me for days. Something was done to you, and I believe it was wrong. I can’t sleep; I keep thinking about what they did to you.’”
Then, Traversie said, she asked him to make her a promise: to find someone with a camera as soon as he got home, and have that person take photos of his stomach and back.
“She said to do it right away, and then she said she wouldn’t identify herself or testify for me,” he said. “She told me she couldn’t endanger herself or her family.”
And Traversie had no way to identify her, or even to see what she was talking about. He is legally blind.
The hospital van brought Traversie back to his Eagle Butte home late on September 8. He said he was so tired and sick, his girlfriend put him to bed. The next morning, his home-healthcare worker from Timber Lake-based West Winds Home Health Care arrived to check on him.
“I told her what the lady said to me,” Traversie said. “She had a camera, and when she went to take pictures of my abdomen, she said, “Oh my God. I don’t know what they did to you.”
Photos of Traversie’s body show scars from the 2011 surgery and prior procedures. They also show deep, scattered wounds — including what look like three Ks across his abdomen.
“You can see the surgery sutures, and they’re clean,” Traversie said. “But those three letters, two good-sized Ks and one smaller one off to the side, had to be made with some sharp knife or heated instrument. It’s like they branded me.”
Traversie’s healthcare worker immediately took her photos to Indian Health Services in Eagle Butte, which requested that Traversie come in immediately. He said his doctor was shocked.
“She said, ‘Why is there KKK on your abdomen? That’s not what surgeons do,’” he recalled. “My pastor was with me, and he said it was a racial hate crime.”
Tribal police met with Traversie and asked him for a statement, regarding where he’d been and who he thought did this to him. He replied that he’d been in the hospital for two weeks.
“I told them I had a confrontation with a male nurse while I was in intensive care,” Traversie said. “I was in so much pain, I begged him for pain medication. He told me to shut my F-ing mouth or he’d shut it for me. I didn’t provoke him. I didn’t disrespect him.
“I did talk to his supervisor,” he continued. “She said she’d take care of it and even take disciplinary action if necessary.”
Unsure if the damage was inflicted during surgery or while he was in intensive care, Traversie decided to get an attorney and file a civil suit against Rapid City Regional Hospital. He also contacted the FBI.
“I talked to an agent in the Pierre office, and he said they’d come out tomorrow to investigate,” he said. “They never came. I called three times, total, and they never came.”
He said he’s unaware of the hospital conducting its own internal investigation, although his Rapid City-based attorney reportedly did have a conversation with hospital administrative staff. He was told, Traversie said, that the hospital attributed the extra wounds to surgical tape or to infections related to his diabetes as reported by Last Real Indians on April 25.
“I have someone coming in every day to care for me,” Traversie said emphatically. “I’ve never had an infection. And I can’t remember ever having tape on me while I was in the hospital. IHS said it was tape too, but what tape could make scars like that? The skin won’t heal. Those marks went through all three layers of my skin, deep into my flesh. I was in pain for a long time after that.”
Traversie waited for seven months, hoping to see his case go to court. During that time, he said his attorney instructed him not to speak to anyone about his injuries and the alleged hate crime.
“He said if I talked to anyone, it would hurt my chances of winning a lawsuit,” he said. “So I waited, but I called every two to three weeks to get a progress report. I finally realized he wasn’t doing anything. I told him I wanted to terminate the contract, and he agreed.
“So I’m without an attorney now, and I’m on a limited income with my Social Security payments,” he said. “I have to get my case into a courtroom before the statute of limitations runs out, but I have no resources.”
Traversie has gotten permission to address the full tribal council about his situation, and he said Chairman Kevin Keckler and Council Rep. Robin LeBeau were working to help him find and retain a new attorney.
“I had a lot of different emotions” he said, reflecting on the decision to tell his story. “I was angry, of course, that someone could do that in a hospital, where they’re supposed to heal people. But I also felt sorrow.”
Breaking down, he added through tears, “I trusted them to take care of me. They didn’t have to do that to me. I was defenseless. I don’t want to carry around those letters for the rest of my life, but I have to. They’re not only in my body, they’re in my spirit. They’re in my soul.”
At press time, IHS in Eagle Butte could not be reached for comment. While Rapid City Regional Hospital would not comment directly on Traversie’s case or on the specific allegations, it did issue a statement.
“Rapid City Regional Hospital is committed to providing all patients, regardless of race or culture, with compassionate and exceptional care,” said Tim Sughrue, CEO of Rapid City Regional Hospital, COO of Regional Health and CEO of Regional Health Network. “We are unable to comment on a patient’s treatment without consent. In the absence of permission, it is not possible to respond to specific questions. When patients submit complaints, we investigate them thoroughly and fully cooperate with outside regulatory organizations in their investigations. We hope all patients continue to seek the care they need at Rapid City Regional Hospital.”
Traversie has a different perspective.
“They made no effort to investigate,” he insisted, “ and I got no support, not even emotional support. Native Americans are not treated with respect. They think they don’t have to take any blame, and they don’t apologize to us.
“We need to get the evil out, or we have to stop sending our people there,” he said, voice trembling. “In the name of God and Jesus Christ, I’m telling the truth. This happened to me.”
Below is Vern Traversie’s YouTube video: