A homeless Anchorage woman says she lost all of her fingers to frostbite after jail staff ignored her painful, discolored hands, delaying medical treatment until it was too late.
Masae Fanene, 42, is suing the Alaska Department of Corrections in federal court. She contends staff at the Anchorage Correctional Complex failed to get her care that might have saved her from having all her fingers and one of her thumbs amputated.
In legal filings, an attorney for the DOC disputed that the department violated its own policies or failed to provide Fanene with timely medical care. Fanene already had frostbite when she arrived at the jail and had refused hospital treatment in the hours before her arrest, the department’s lawyer argued.
The case illustrates the serious dangers hypothermia and cold injuries pose for unsheltered people in Anchorage at a time when the municipality is grappling with a long-term plan for how to shelter unhoused people this winter and beyond. In October, the city reopened the Sullivan Arena as an emergency shelter after temperatures dropped below 45 degrees, triggering a legal obligation to provide indoor cold-weather shelter. For most of the summer, hundreds of unhoused people had been living in Centennial Park in Muldoon.
A Daily News analysis of what police term “outdoor deaths” suggests hypothermia may be a more common cause of death for homeless people in Anchorage than previously thought. At least 17 people have died from the cold in Anchorage over the last five years.
Last winter, dozens of unsheltered people were injured and hospitalized by the cold.
In a 2022 letter, Anchorage’s former municipal homeless coordinator John Morris, a physician who practices anesthesiology, wrote that at least 27 people experiencing homelessness had been “admitted to area hospitals with frostbite severe enough to require inpatient care, according to records maintained by the State of Alaska.”
As of February, just one of Anchorage’s hospitals had seen more than 46 people “come to the emergency room suffering from frostbite who do not have a safe place to sleep at night, staying instead in camps, under tarps or in cars,” Morris wrote.
Fanene’s injuries happened at the end of 2019, according to the lawsuit.
Early on Dec. 22 of that year, Fanene “suffered cold exposure” that left her hands slightly grayish blue and painful, the lawsuit complaint said. Around 5 a.m. she went to a hospital emergency room but walked out before a doctor who had already examined her could share his diagnosis of frostbite, according to the complaint.
On that day, the air temperature in Anchorage plummeted to 4 degrees below zero with a wind chill making it feel closer to minus-15, according to the lawsuit. At those temperatures, frostbite can set in within minutes.
Later that day, “desperate to get warm in a sheltered place,” Fanene ended up in an empty apartment on 11th Avenue. The landlord eventually called police and just before midnight, Fanene was arrested for trespassing and taken to jail.
The Alaska Department of Corrections is supposed to complete a medical screening for people being booked to see if they’re sick, dangerously intoxicated or otherwise “not medically fit” to be incarcerated, the lawsuit says. Those who fail the medical screening are taken to a hospital for treatment.
Fanene’s lawyers contend the jail should have known Fanene needed to go to the hospital but was booked early on Dec. 23 “despite the bitter winter temperatures, Ms. Fanene’s status as a homeless person, her verbal complaints of hand pain, her fingers’ dysfunction, and the discoloration of both her hands – all objective indications of frostbite requiring emergency treatment.”
The lawsuit says the jail skipped mandatory fingerprinting and didn’t have Fanene sign a form because her hands were in such bad shape she couldn’t manage it. The jail “had reason to know” her fingers were frostbitten, the lawsuit asserts.
The DOC acknowledges it didn’t complete a medical screening of Fanene, but says she was too intoxicated to do it.
Fanene’s lawyers says she wasn’t too intoxicated to answer the jail’s questions and shared information about what medications she’d been prescribed.
Fanene didn’t see medical staff for the next 10 hours, according to the lawsuit.
It wasn’t until Fanene was transferred to Hiland Mountain Correctional Center that afternoon that another DOC nurse noticed the deteriorating condition of her hands and ordered her to a hospital.
The next weeks and months were gruesome and traumatic: The dead tissue of Fanene’s fingers turned black and fell off before an amputation could be done. It was an experience “so horrible, it is almost beyond imagination,” her lawyers wrote. Of the ten digits on her hands, only the thumb was spared.