Half Baked

Or, how a state law turned an evening of carousing into days of hell

Imagine this: You're an overworked waitress. You have your first night off in three weeks. You down a few drinks, end up a little tipsy, and next thing you know, you're on the psych ward at county general hospital for 26 hours. An inmate threatens to kill you, a nurse questions your sanity, and you sleep maybe two hours as your truly disturbed roomie screams all night.

Finally, to top it all off, you get a bill for more than $20,000.

All this happened to Sarah Macdonald, a slim, pretty, dark-haired 24-year-old, thanks to Florida's Baker Act, an ugly piece of legislation that is being increasingly and perhaps improperly used on hordes of South Floridians each month. In Broward County alone, it was invoked almost 9,000 times in 2002.

Moving to America's Venice wasn't friendly for Sean Dolan and Sarah Macdonald.
Colby Katz
Moving to America's Venice wasn't friendly for Sean Dolan and Sarah Macdonald.

Macdonald's story began when she moved to Fort Lauderdale from Phoenix three months ago. Sure, she'd had her share of problems. She'd filed for divorce and left her husband behind. Two companies had sued her for $19,000 in debts. But she had settled with 32-year-old boyfriend Sean Dolan in an apartment near the beach and found a job at McSorley's Irish Pub, a friendly joint with a close-knit staff. She planned to earn enough to pay off her debts and start fresh in America's Venice.

Her first problem arose in early May, the opening of South Florida's mosquito season. An allergic reaction to bites caused her "to blow up like a balloon," she says. So she bought a pack of Benadryl. She noted the warning not to drink alcohol when taking the medicine but didn't pay it much mind.

On May 19, she took four doses of Benadryl and then, around 7 p.m., sat down at the McSorley's bar with a couple of friends. Generally a social drinker (she's never been arrested for DUI, disorderly conduct, or any other crime in Arizona or South Florida, according to public records), MacDonald began downing exotic concoctions: two Irish Car Bombs (which include Bailey's Irish Cream, Guinness Stout, and whiskey), a couple of pineapple drinks, and a pair of shots of something called Surfer on Acid (you don't want to know). Six or seven drinks in all.

When Dolan, a pizza delivery guy, arrived at the bar around 11 p.m., Macdonald "had a pretty good buzz, but she wasn't crazy or anything," he reports. On the way home, she was wobbly and soon started falling against parking meters. By the time they had walked the several blocks to Vista Mar Resorts, where they were living, she was shivering severely. He called 911. Paramedics delivered her to Broward General Medical Center.

Then it got weird.

After Macdonald was called for an examination, she reacted violently, according to Sara Howley, a spokeswoman for the North Broward Hospital District, which runs the hospital. The doctor, whose name Howley wouldn't disclose, had Macdonald's hands and feet tied to a gurney. Then he ordered sedatives, which, according to Dolan, included at least ten milligrams of Haldol, a drug used for "chronic psychosis, including schizophrenia and manic states" as well as "management of aggressive and agitated behavior in patients with chronic brain syndrome and mental retardation," according to the Internet site mentalhealth.com.

(Dolan and Macdonald contend that the drug was unnecessary. Howley says it is "commonly used on emergency room patients who are uncontrollable.")

When emergency room personnel tried to put in a catheter, Macdonald ripped the catheter out -- and the IV came with it. "They said she had gotten violent," Dolan recalls. "They said that was probably a result of the Benadryl and the alcohol."

At that point, the doctor decided to invoke the Baker Act, Florida's involuntary-commitment law, Howley says. It allows a hospital to hold a patient for 72 hours after he or she has been declared medically fit if law enforcement or doctors suspect psychological problems.

The next afternoon, Macdonald's mother, Suanne DeClue, flew to Fort Lauderdale from Phoenix. She and Dolan waited in the intensive care unit while Macdonald lay unconscious. On Friday about 6 p.m., almost two days after arrival, Macdonald woke up and was moved out of the ICU to a private room. "I was dizzy, barely conscious; I couldn't eat," she says. "I think it was the drugs they were giving me."

That night, doctors assigned a woman to sit with her, presumably to make sure she didn't harm herself. (Howley explains that patients receive sitters, free of charge, if doctors are concerned about their safety.)

Later that night, a nurse showed up and said she was going to administer Librium, a drug used for alcohol withdrawal. "I told her, 'No, I'm not taking that. I am not having any trouble sleeping,'" Macdonald recalls.

"She said, 'I'll just write it down as refusing to take your medication.' I guess refusing to take medication didn't look good."

That was two strikes against Macdonald. She'd been violent upon arrival and then declined medication. The third strike came Saturday morning, after Dolan and DeClue had gone home for some shuteye. A psychiatrist entered her room about 6:30 a.m. "He said, 'May I ask you a couple of questions... I said, 'No, I want to wait for my mom. She'll be here in about 15 minutes.' He said, 'If you won't answer my questions, then I have to send you up to the psych floor. '"

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