Charles Haroutunian rested on a squeaky gurney as an ambulance driver wheeled him into the mental unit that would be his home for the next six months. The stench of urine and feces quickly engulfed the 80-year-old Sun Lakes man as he made his way through the Santa Rosa Care Center in Tucson.
He heard wailing from some unseen place and then turned his head and saw someone slumped in a wheelchair.
The World War II veteran did not belong in the locked ward for severely mentally ill and brain-damaged patients. But a falling out with his family, a suicide attempt and a court order led him there.
A system breakdown left him there.
“You see it in the movies and you don’t believe it,” Haroutunian said. “I believe it. I lived through it.”
For his troubles, a Pima County jury awarded the man $310,250 in October, assigning most of the blame to Value Options, Maricopa County’s behavioral health provider for the indigent. The jury laid a relatively smaller portion of the blame on the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary, the agency charged with protecting vulnerable adults.
Haroutunian’s descent into “hell” began Sept. 2, 2002, when he took 520 Valium tablets while feeling depressed and abandoned.
“I woke up in the hospital, that’s all I know,” Haroutunian said.
He soon found himself at Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix answering questions from a psychiatrist who told him his family was trying to have him committed to a mental hospital.
Two psychiatrists examined him — one saying he met the requirements for forced treatment and the other say- ing he did not. The latter didn’t show up for a court hearing, and Judge Barbara Rodriguez Mundell of Maricopa County Superior Court ordered his commitment, Haroutunian said.
Cheryl Blum, Haroutunian’s attorney, said in opening statements of the trial that the court order required Value Options to provide treatment for Haroutunian, but the company stepped aside and let the county hospital decide where he would go.
The hospital set up his stay at Santa Rosa Care Center, the only place where the Veterans Administration would cover the bill.
Value Options does not comment on litigation, said company spokesman Joseph Ortiz. But defense attorney Lisa Mills said at trial that Value Options was responsible only for Haroutunian’s outpatient treatment and he was suing the wrong party.
Haroutunian said he didn’t question his move to the Tucson nursing home because he didn’t know his rights.
“I just thought I had my 180 days of punishment for breaking man’s law and God’s law by trying to take my life,” Haroutunian said.
He was placed in a locked unit that housed about 30 men and women who were either mentally ill or brain-damaged. Many were elderly.
Haroutunian’s two roommates wore diapers, and one banged his bed and yelled most of the day. Haroutunian also shared a bathroom with two men with hepatitis C and one with stomach cancer who would vomit after most meals — a smell Haroutunian said was worse than decomposing bodies.
“I can still smell it,” said Haroutunian, who trembles when he talks about his experiences there.
He often went without eating because patients would spit in his food or try to snatch it.
There was no one to speak with because most of the patients were incoherent. He said it wasn’t until his final month that a patient came with whom he could have a sensible conversation.
About two months into his stay, Haroutunian said a psychotherapist named Wendy White started working there. She made the rounds and introduced herself to everyone.
“This man comes up to me and says, ‘I really shouldn’t be here,’” said White, now in private practice.
White said she mentioned the patient’s comment to other staff members. Much to her surprise, they agreed.
White began looking at Haroutunian’s chart and couldn’t tell whose authority he was under. Weeks of making phone calls to the various agencies were fruitless.
“I just couldn’t get him the help he needed,” White said. “No one seemed alarmed.”
She suspected Haroutunian might be a victim of age discrimination. “My argument was, if he was 26, this wouldn’t be happening,” White said.
Blum told the jury that Value Options didn’t look into the type of facility that Haroutunian was in or whether he was getting treatment, medication or access to the courts.
Value Options never finished paperwork to transfer his case to its counterpart in Pima County, no one requested a termination of the court order and someone at Value Options mistakenly closed the file when it shouldn’t have been.
“Once they closed his file, he literally ceases to exist in the mental health system,” Blum said.
White said she helped Haroutunian find a lawyer, who eventually pieced together Haroutunian’s situation. “A man shouldn’t have to spend his own money to get out of a nursing home,” White said.
The attorney, Paul Bartlett, managed to get an emergency hearing before Mundell, who fined Value Options and the Public Fiduciary $10,000 each. The judge ordered that Haroutunian be examined to see if he belonged in Santa Rosa.
After an extensive examination by two doctors he hired, Value Options conceded Haroutunian should be freed, Blum said.
“Conceivably he could have been there the rest of his life,” White said.