November 18, 2008; News 12 at 6 o'clock
AUGUSTA -- News 12 continues an exclusive investigation into a state prison farm. An Augusta woman says in a lawsuit, filed in Georgia, she's blind in one eye because pig blood got all over her while she was working there. She's suing, but she's talking only to News 12.
It's difficult for Sherry Curtis to talk about losing her vision. She describes it as being "painful. A lot of times, I do things just to keep from crying. It's painful."
Sherry Curtis says, as does her lawsuit, that she had to lose her eyesight to see a problem with inmates, like herself, working with pigs at the Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Georgia. She says "you have to cut their tails off, clip their teeth, castrate them, administer them shots."
According to her lawsuit, she and other inmates did this without training, protective clothing, or goggles.
"This particular day, we was administering shots, and if you hit a pig in the wrong part of his neck, he could bleed to death, " says Sherry. Her lawsuit claims, the blood also got all over her, which she believes cost her her vision. Sherry went through some testing, "and then when they told me I had a disease called brucellosis, I was devastated. I was devastated."
The Centers for Disease Control says brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can spread from infected pigs to humans.
It's very rare, but those who get it can have flu-like symptoms. Even though the CDC's list of symptoms doesn't include blindness, Sherry claims in her lawsuit that's what the disease did to her. She also says it gave her a recurring rash.
While no one disputes her symptoms, experts do have a problem with her diagnosis. According to Sherry's prison records, doctors tested her for brucellosis, but in the end "the state does not consider this a case of brucella."
News 12 took these records to Dr. Susan Sanchez, an expert in infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Georgia and an expert in brucella. She herself did not test Sherry, but the first thing that stands out to her: Sherry's blindness.
Dr Sanchez says, "it's not a symptom, and it's not a symptom that will take place anytime soon. There might be some people who are immuno-compromised, maybe later on, months after the infection, have some signs, but that's very, very, rare."
It's rare, but is it possible? News 12 did some digging and we found a book about weapons of mass destruction lists brucellosis as a possible biological agent. You can read an excerpt by clicking here.
We noticed it says "optic nerve involvement occurs in about 11% of patients. In one case of brucellosis, the patient's initial symptoms of the infection were blindness in one eye."
We found a case of a 15-year-old girl with brucellosis who went blind in one eye. Click here to read about that case.
And you can read about a case in India where a 45-year-old man went blind by clicking here.
Still, Dr. Sanchez believes Sherry's case comes from something else.
Dr. Sanchez: "She actually harmed herself trying to wash (her eye).
Meredith Anderson: "But there was nothing she got from a pig?"
Dr. Sanchez: "I don't think so. Nothing that would act so fast."
However, something did act fast. When Sherry went to prison, like any other inmate, doctors did a thorough exam. They found she was perfectly healthy, and they gave her a "one" for eyesight on her medical documents, meaning her vision was perfect. It showed she was 20/20 in both eyes.
In document after document, we also see Sherry discusses her blindness with mental health professionals. A handwritten note even says the prison will do "everything possible to find the cause of this problem."
News 12 wanted to know what the prison did do to investigate. According to the department of corrections, "the department did not conduct an internal investigation into the alleged incident, and no incident report was completed following the "incident" alleged to have occurred at Lee Arrendale S.P. On October 25, 2006. Moreover, records do not indicate that the inmate filed a grievance concerning her allegation."
Meanwhile, an inspection from 2006 of the pig farm showed zero sign of disease. The inspectors even write "Congratulations to you and your staff. Continue your good work."
Back in Augusta, Sherry is worried about the work still being done, so she's filed her lawsuit because "there's other inmates there, that works out there on that farm, and that same thing that happened to me, could happen to them, and it could probably be much worse."
We spoke to the warden about sherry's case, and he says he is aware of it, but he can't comment on it because it's part of a lawsuit.
According to Sherry's attorney, the Department of Corrections is promising to fight this in court. He says he's fully prepared to take this to a jury trial.
Of course, we'll be watching, and we will let you know what happens.