Quadriplegic stuck living at hospital, facility drops lawsuit

An 18-year-old quadriplegic who has no family to care for her is living at a Triad hospital. She has been for more than four years.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A fight to find a place to call home. 

An 18-year-old quadriplegic who has no family to care for her is living at a Triad hospital, where she has been for more than four years, and was being sued for trespassing.

Thursday, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist dropped the charges against the patient.

This situation has shed light on a bigger issue in the state. 

To understand the story, we have to look back at where it started

Alexis Ratcliff was a vibrant baby. She was born and raised in the Kernersville area. 

At just 18 months old, tragedy struck for Ratcliff.

“We left our house, we went to the methadone clinic, then we went to the grocery store. I was removed from my car seat, which wasn’t even fastened,” Ratcliff said. 

Ratcliff’s mother was driving. Her father was holding her in the front seat of the car when they crashed. 

“I got stuck between my dad’s lap and the dashboard, which cut my spinal cord in half, and it’s what paralyzed me,” she said. 

Ratcliff was paralyzed from the neck down. Her mother was on drugs and later convicted and sentenced to prison.

Ratcliff now requires a ventilator to breathe and needs people to monitor and service it.

“There is a lot of trauma,” she said. “I hated it at first, but now it doesn’t bother me as much. At the time, it was really hard being a young quadriplegic; I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy because it is hard.”

After the crash, Ratcliff’s grandpa stepped in and took care of her until she was 13 years old.

His health declined, putting Ratcliff into Surry County DSS’s care. 

At 13 years old, the court ordered that she remain at the Brenner Children’s Hospital until she was either 18 years old or until a suitable placement was found,  either in assisted living or in a residential setting.

Ratcliff has continued living at the hospital for roughly four years.

During this time, Ratcliff graduated high school and earned a full ride to Salem College.

“I want to get out of Baptist. If I could leave right now, I so would, but unfortunately, that’s just not an option right now,” she said. 

On Ratcliff’s 18th birthday, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist moved her to the adult side of the ICU. 

According to the hospital, it struggled to find her a proper place to live.

This is where we learned about a big gap in services within our state. 

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, only two assisted living facilities in the state provide ventilator care. 

Of the two facilities, there are only 67 total beds to take care of everyone in North Carolina. 

NC DHHS recognized the issue and released this statement: 

“Ventilator patients are at higher risk for lung infections, heart and blood flow changes, and other complications and require regular monitoring by a care team comprised of pulmonologists, nurses, and respiratory therapists. Like other states, North Carolina has an inadequate number of ventilator beds in nursing facilities. We recently amended our rules on ventilator care in nursing homes to make it easier for more facilities to offer this care across the state. While we haven’t yet seen that expected increase, we are hopeful to see more ventilator care provided in nursing facilities as the healthcare labor market improves.”

To make matters worse, when the lawsuit between the hospital and Ratcliff opened in September, court documents showed there were three assisted living facilities with ventilator care. One was in Taylorsville, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro.

NC DHHS’s recent report, published two weeks ago, shows a facility in Greensboro no longer exists.

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist stated in the lawsuit that Ratcliff was admitted into the facility in Winston-Salem, but this required her to switch her breathing tube. 

That attempt was unsuccessful after Ratcliff said she couldn’t breathe or talk with the new tube. The facility in Winston-Salem could not accommodate her because of this.

Attempts to get Ratcliff to the locations were unsuccessful, and the hospital could only find a place for her to go in Virginia. 

At first, Ratcliff refused to leave because she didn’t want to leave her college, friends, and the community she had built in the area. She also worried that her Medicaid wouldn’t allow her to return to North Carolina. 

In September, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist filed a lawsuit for trespassing. 

In the lawsuit, the hospital stated that there is no ‘step-down’ from the ICU to a less intensive care setting at the hospital. Patients must be discharged to a nursing facility or residential setting. 

The hospital stated that other patients were being turned away from the ICU because there were no beds available. 

Between July 1 and Oct. 12, 2023, the hospital stated it was unable to accommodate 104 patients needing ICU-level medical care because it didn’t have available beds. The average stay for an ICU patient is 3.75 Days. 

The number increases by about two patients for every week she is in the ICU. 

This was the challenge both the hospital and Ratcliff were battling. 

That changed on Thursday. 

The hospital released this statement: “Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist has filed to dismiss the claim against Ms. Ratcliff. We continue to work with all parties, including her attorneys and North Carolina Medicaid, and are seeking resolution through mediation, to ensure a safe and appropriate long term care plan for Ms. Ratcliff.”

From here, the plan is to find her a place to stay. 

The only option for Ratcliff is to be adopted by a family willing to care for her or be placed in a residential facility where her ventilator could be monitored.

Ratcliff said she is ready to leave the hospital and be in the community, and the lack of resources for those needing help is discouraging. 

Through her struggles, though, Ratcliff said it inspired her to be a disability advocate for others. 

“We are still slacking as a state. There’s a lot that we need to work on and it’s not going to get better with just a couple of people doing it, we have to work as a team,” she said.

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