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Jorge Cortez, 58
Galveston, Texas
June 23, 2017

Last updated: 8 months ago

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Jackie Burlingame knew her father's illness was serious when other inmates at the Galveston County Jail started calling her, telling her he was in trouble.

Her dad, 58-year-old Jorge Cortez, could not get out of bed, they told her. He was barely eating. He could barely talk. And he could barely breathe. Cortez had been going to the jail medical clinic repeatedly, but all they gave him was ibuprofen before returning him to his cell in a wheelchair. He talked to Burlingame about it almost every day, while panting and wheezing over the phone as though he had just run three miles. His daughter was confounded as to why the nurses and doctors weren’t hearing the same thing. It was unlike her father to even want help at all, yet Cortez — who had been a mechanic for the past 40 years, who worked on cars in the Houston and Brownsville heat and rode his bike everywhere without complaint — was now begging for it.

“You could hear it in his voice,” Burlingame said. “I felt helpless. I couldn’t help him. I didn’t know how to deal with it, because week after week he would just sound worse and worse. And then I stopped hearing from him.”

Cortez died in a hospital bed at the University of Texas Medical Branch four weeks after being transported there in an ambulance from the jail. His autopsy is pending, but doctors told Burlingame that her father was undergoing acute respiratory distress and lung failure at the time of his death. Upon admission to the hospital, he had been diagnosed with what’s called traumatic hemopneumothorax — essentially trauma-induced pneumonia, believed to be caused in Cortez’s case by a bad fall off his top bunk bed. After doctors removed fluid and scar tissue from his lungs during surgery, however, Cortez was still suffering. Doctors later determined he likely also had an underlying rare type of cancer, mesothelioma, while others told Burlingame they were “not convinced" without further testing.

In any case, she said she feels certain that the Galveston County Jail medical staff provided woefully lacking treatment for her father, despite his repeated complaints, and failed to recognize the seriousness of Cortez's deteriorating condition until it was far too late. She's now pursuing legal action.