Woman Fights for Access to Her Wheelchair

By Williams, Lee | Sarasota Herald Tribune, June 5, 2015 | Go to article overview

Woman Fights for Access to Her Wheelchair


Williams, Lee, Sarasota Herald Tribune


STOLEN FREEDOM?

BRADENTON -- Gina Ruiz has been trapped in a chair for 91 days, her attorney says.

A quadriplegic living at Bradenton's Consulate Health Care, Ruiz had been able to move around the nursing home and visit nearby stores and restaurants with the aid of an electronic wheelchair, which her father bought for her for $3,500.

But nursing home officials took away that chair on March 5, after Ruiz had an "emotional event," her attorney, Elizabeth Boyle, said. On Monday, they dropped off the electronic chair at her father's home.

Now, the 30-year-old single mom is confined to her room or to a chair on rollers, which has caused large pressure and abrasion marks on her hips and thighs, Boyle said. Ruiz is unable to move the chair because she has limited use of her arms, and little strength in her hands.

"Not only does her lack of a motorized wheelchair unlawfully physically restrain her, it hurts her physically," Boyle said. "Her urologist has told them that the chairs they have her in are not suitable. She slides down in them. She has even fallen out."

Ruiz was paralyzed in a car crash in 2012. It took rescuers more than 30 minutes to cut her from her car.

By taking her electronic wheelchair, Ruiz said, nursing home officials have taken away her quality of life.

"I couldn't do 99 percent of the things that normal people do, but I could go to 7-Eleven and buy a cup of coffee or an apple. I could go to a restaurant with my daughter. I can't do any of that without my chair," she said. "Now, I just go nuts sitting here. All I see are these four walls. It's driving me insane."

Consulate Health Care administrator Steve Oelfke declined to comment Wednesday because of an "ongoing investigation." He would not say who was conducting the investigation, or whether it was criminal, internal or civil in nature.

Instead, he referred inquiries to Jennifer Trapp, a corporate spokeswoman for Consulate Health Care based in Maitland, who said: "My understanding is there's some sort of ongoing situation with that particular resident, in which attorneys are involved. I would need to get with our team and determine what the situation is. We don't comment on investigations or anything that has ongoing litigation attached with it."

Both Ruiz and Boyle -- the wife of Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski -- had been at the center of a controversy involving Gulfcoast Legal Services. In 2013, the longtime legal aid attorney lost her job with Gulfcoast because she had agreed to represent Ruiz. She has remained her attorney ever since.

Boyle used to be the director of Gulfcoast's Sarasota office, until she was forced out by the firm's former executive director, who was later forced out herself by the firm's board of directors, partly because of the firestorm created by Boyle's firing.

This furor became so intense that another counterpart in the region, Legal Aid of Manasota, tried to distance itself from GulfCoast.

Dispute with brother

Ruiz says she lost her electronic wheelchair because of an argument she had with her brother after her iPad stopped working.

"I got about 80 percent of my entertainment through the iPad," she said. While Ruiz cannot control her fingers, she has enough dexterity in her arms to manipulate the electronic device.

"I told my brother that I needed to get it fixed or maybe I'd just kill myself," she said. "I didn't mean it, of course. I'm not suicidal."

Her brother reported her comments to hospital officials, who found her outside around 10:30 p.m., smoking a cigarette near a side road that runs by the hospital, which is on Cortez Road in Bradenton. Ruiz, a smoker, took frequent breaks outside the facility.

The staffer insinuated she was contemplating driving her chair into traffic.

"I wasn't!" Ruiz exclaimed. "I was just smoking a cigarette, wishing that my brother would hurry up and get my iPad fixed. …

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