SAVANNAH Ga. -- For more than two weeks, Matthew Loflin's family members dealt with uncertainty, angst and grief as he lay motionless in a bed at Memorial University Medical Center.
When they were able to see the 32-year-old, who was in a vegetative state, it was for limited amounts of time at first, and two things amplified the already-difficult situation. Despite his condition, Loflin was shackled to his bed — for 14 days — until just two nights prior to his death on Thursday, and a sheriff’s deputy stood guard close by 24 hours a day.
Loflin had been an inmate at the Chatham County jail since Feb. 6, when he was arrested by the sheriff’s office on several drug charges, and he remained a prisoner after a doctor on April 8 sent him to the hospital for treatment of an unspecified medical condition.
His family said his heart stopped, and loss of oxygen to his brain caused irreparable damage.
Even then, he remained a shackled inmate until Tuesday evening, when Chatham County Superior Court Judge Penny Haas Freesemann ordered him released on his own recognizance.
At that time, Loflin’s leg restraints were removed and the deputy standing guard left, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Gena Bilbo.
The court order was needed to release Loflin from custody, Bilbo said. Despite the unusual circumstance, it would have been against policy set up between the sheriff’s office and the hospital to do otherwise, she said.
“It is our policy that as long as somebody is in our custody at the hospital, they have to remain handcuffed and a deputy has to be there to guard them,” Bilbo said.
Grieving family members say removal of the shackles gave them a little bit of solace. They had been working with a public defender to make that happen in the days before Loflin’s death.
“It’s been a great relief to his mother and his grandmother and myself that when he does pass, which is imminent, he will not be trussed up like a pig,” Loflin’s stepfather, Joe Maley, said late Tuesday. “We will have to deal with the grief of his passing, but it made a difference.”
Loflin’s mother, Belinda Maley, said Loflin was on a ventilator from the time he was hospitalized, and that doctors had said he would not have recovered.
Belinda said her son did not have a living will, power of attorney or advance directive — legal documents in which a person details decisions about end-of-life care ahead of time — set up at the time of his incarceration.
As someone who works in the health care industry herself, she said she had talked with her son about people being kept alive via mechanical devices. Her son would not have wanted to go through what he experienced in the final days of his life, Belinda said Wednesday.
On Thursday afternoon, Loflin was taken off the ventilator following a doctors’ consultation with family members, Joe Maley said.
Loflin died later in the evening with his mother at his side, Maley said.
“Thankfully he had been released from his shackles through (public defender Kimberly) Price’s efforts and was allowed to die with dignity,” Joe said in an email.
The sheriff’s office also would have liked to get Loflin released from custody while he was in the hospital, Bilbo said, but the felony drug charges he faced — possession of a controlled substance and possession of imitation controlled substance with intent to distribute — meant a judge needed to make the call, she said.
Additionally, had been arrested while out on bond for a charge in Liberty County, she said.
Joe Maley said he didn’t understand that logic after reading about a now-fired South Carolina police officer who was able to bond out of jail here on an aggravated assault charge.
“What we have been are actors in the theater of the absurd,” he said.
Michael Notrica, a spokesman for Memorial, said he could not comment on the matter due to patient privacy issues.
Chatham County Public Defender Michael Edwards declined to comment on the case.
His time in jail
Family members say they have questions about Loflin’s medical conditions while he was in the jail, but sheriff’s office officials say they cannot provide his medical care records to media due to privacy issues.
The Maleys say they visited Loflin on March 31, after another inmate’s wife called Belinda to tell her Loflin was ailing and had been placed in the infirmary.
When they saw his face on one of the screens used for visitation, he didn’t look well, Joe Maley said. He fell into a coughing fit toward the end of visitation.
“Their response every time I called there was, ‘He’s resting comfortably and has 24-hour nursing care,’” Belinda Maley said. “And I went through that for, I don’t know, four or five days: ‘He’s resting comfortably and has 24-hour nursing care.’
“I’m never going to get that out of my brain.”
Belinda Maley said the only time she talked to a doctor at the jail, he told her Loflin had been taken to a specialist and diagnosed with a heart condition. She said she wishes Loflin had been hospitalized sooner.
Loflin was placed in the medical unit of the jail March 26 and had 24-hour care, Bilbo said. On April 8, a decision was made to take him to a doctor’s office. That doctor, she said, sent him to Memorial.
“No medical care was impeded or interrupted in any shape, form or fashion by him being in custody,” Bilbo said.
The Maleys said they were unable to see Loflin again before he was admitted to Memorial.
When he was released from custody Tuesday evening, he became responsible for paying for his own health care, Joe Maley said.
“We were advised that the judge said once she signed this order, the cost of his care would shift from the county to the family, which in this case would be Matthew himself, since he’s an adult,” Joe Maley said.
Prior to his arrest, Loflin was “basically homeless” and he had no health insurance, Maley said.
Reporter Jan Skutch contributed to this story