Judy Valadao has lived in Fort Bragg for sixty years. She and her late husband Ronald raised their kids there, made their home there, and lived their lives there.
Ronald began to suffer medical complications associated with his digestive system in late 2020. She watched Ronald, a vibrant and powerful carpenter wither away to one hundred pounds, unable to eat or move.
Ronald’s ailments would be the catalyst for a journey into the labyrinth of Mendocino County’s local health care system. For over a year, the pair would navigate general practitioners, specialists, intensive care units, and emergency rooms, both on the coast and inland hoping and praying for the care Ronald needed to be well once again.
Desperate for medical treatment, Judy worked every angle she could at Adventist Health Mendocino Coast to get the specialists her husband needed. At one point, Ronald was put in the emergency room for three days where visitors were not allowed due to COVID-19 concerns, and Judy told us he was put in a small windowless room with nothing more than a bed and a clock.
Ronald returned to the comfort of his home, in the care of Judy, still ailing from an illness that had stolen his verve and losing hope that he could get the medical care he desperately needed.
On February 5, 2022, Ronald was having a tough night. Judy remembered he struggled to breathe and could no longer walk. Ron was in the downstairs bedroom because he could no longer make it upstairs. That evening Judy tucked him in, and let their dogs get into bed with him who snuggled with him for a bit. Judy said goodnight and closed the door halfway leaving it open a bit.
A little while later she heard what she initially thought was something hitting the front door. Ron’s sister arrived at this time and planned to sit with Judy for the evening. She put the sound she had heard aside for a few minutes and decided to peep in on Ronald.
In a few seconds that would last an eternity, Judy realized that sound she had heard was not something hitting the door, but the firing of a handgun. Her husband of 35 years, hurting and hopeless, had taken his own life.
In a swirl of red and blue police lights, neighbors on porches, and strangers in her home, Judy realized the man she loved so deeply was gone. When he could not find the help he needed from the local medical system, he took the power into his hands.
How Could This Happen?
Judy, haunted by thoughts of Ronald alone in a hospital bed left untreated, began to reflect on the frailties of Mendocino County’s rural health care.
She took to social media and posted an open letter to Mendocino County Public Health Officer Dr. Andrew Coren. In that open letter, Valadao asked Dr. Coren pointed questions about the role COVID-19 and associated pandemic protocols have had on Mendocino County’s health care systems.
These questions, born of Valadao’s tragedy, strike at the heart of medical care’s complexities during a pandemic and the inevitability that any set of interventions, proven effective or not, could also induce injury.
Dr. Coren answered her questions to the best of his ability.
Valadao wanted to know whether “folks with illnesses other than Covid have fallen through the cracks because of lack of beds/staff during this pandemic?”
Dr. Coren said he recognized there was a multitude of factors that could have contributed to patients falling through the cracks.
He suggested that some patients postponed visiting a doctor due to concerns about contracting COVID-19 and others might have experienced long wait times delaying the required care. These complications could have been exacerbated by “institutional changes of policies and practices, Dr. Coren explained.
Alternative avenues to medical services, such as telemedicine, were “out of reach for many people with insufficient computer access,” Dr. Coren recognized.
Dr. Coren acknowledged that there is ample evidence chronic diseases got worse during the pandemic. Many patients were unable to adjust medications which might have led to “increases in severe illnesses requiring hospitalizations following admission to emergency departments.”
The worsening of these chronic diseases could be seen in local hospitals as emergency rooms began to fill not with COVID-19 patients, but those stricken with chronic diseases.
Coupled with the decreased access to health providers, Valadao asked Dr. Coren if Mendocino County experienced a marked rise in deaths due to other causes. Outside of COVID-19, Dr. Coren said, “the only other causes that appear to have increased during the pandemic are deaths due to drug overdose, and suicide during the pandemic.
Judy told us she does not entirely trust the information Dr. Coren provided. “I think the real numbers would tell how many are suffering from other issues not COVID related and how many have been sent home because of the lack of beds/staff.”
Dr. William Miller is the Chief of Staff at Adventist Health Mendocino Coast. He acknowledged Judy’s grief stating, “There are no words that can alleviate the family’s pain and suffering.” He reassured the community, however, that Adventist Health was using the story of Ronald to find “opportunities to improve.”
Dr. Miller told us that Ron’s experience was “influenced by a number of factors”, including “the occasional difficulty in transferring patients to higher levels of care due to lack of available beds,” a shortage exacerbated by COVID-19 surges, and the subsequent rise in hospitalizations.
Regarding Ron’s inability to have visitors during his stay at Adventist Health, Dr. Miller pointed toward restrictions mandated by the State of California “as part of the overall effort to reduce the spread and protect patients and staff at the height of the pandemic.”
Dr. Miller attributes Ron’s long delays in care to recent “shortages in staffing that are affecting healthcare throughout the country, including here on the Coast.” He went on to say that many patients of Adventist Health have experienced “long and often frustrating delays and we apologize for that and wish to reassure folks that we are working to fix these problems, including by aggressively recruiting…”
Rural health care facilities can prove difficult to staff, Dr. Miller explained, compared to larger, urban areas which are “more desirable, especially for young physicians.” Adventist Health will be hosting career fairs quarterly and exploring “all avenues to bring in new providers to serve our community.”
Fundamentally, Dr. Miller said that Adventist Health is “committed to this community and its hospitals and clinics.” He encouraged all patients of Mendocino County’s Adventist Health hospitals to provide feedback because “it is through hearing from our patients and their loved ones that we learn what we are doing well and what we need to improve on.”
Thinking back to her last night with Ron, Judy remembered how her once sturdy husband could not stand or walk. He could barely breathe and was only able to respond with a simple “yes” or “no.” Amid that pain, when Judy asked Ronald that night if he wanted to go to the hospital, he unequivocally said, “No.”
Judy Valadao now stays busy doing projects, renovating her kitchen, walking her dog, and remembering Ronald. She told us that nighttime is the hardest.
She is determined to not let the world forget what happened to her husband. She knows that the three days of isolation in the hospital led to Ronald’s loss of faith in the medical system and “sealed his fate.”
She loves the story of her mother calling the couple “hippies” when they first met and Ronald’s hair was long. She remembers his quiet smile, his playful ways, his love.
While digging through her closets, Judy stumbled on a stack of letters Ronald had written her many years ago. One of them was what he titled his “Sweet Heart ‘Thank You’ List” describing all the reasons he fell in love with Judy. “Thank you for loving and trusting me.” “Thank you for making lots and lots of great memories.” Maybe the most relevant, Ronald thanked Judy, “Thank you for listening to me when I was down.”
First, for full disclosure, Judy Valadao is a good friend. She is also a contributor to my website, MendoFever, and has also staffed the Mendocino County COVID-19 press conference representing MendoFever.
Second, many aspects of the Emerald Triangle’s rural lifestyle lend themselves to suicide risk factors. Those risk factors, as described by the Center for Disease Control, include barriers to health care, social isolation, and high rates of adverse childhood experiences,
Please remember, if you or a loved one are suffering from mental distress many resources can be accessed including:
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 1-800-950-6264, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): (800) 662-4357
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): (866) 615-6464
- Mental Health America Hotline: Text MHA to 741741
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741
In efforts to educate the public regarding suicide prevention, the following infographic from the National Institute of Mental Health guides warning signs associated with suicide: