During the early hours of a steamy July 2003 morning, Martin Memorial Medical Center chartered a private plane and sent 37-year-old Luis Jimenez back to Guatemala without telling his relatives in the U.S. or Guatemala — even as his legal guardian frantically sought to stop the move.
The man’s guardian, also his cousin, is suing the hospital for essentially deporting Jimenez, who was an illegal immigrant. The hospital, which spent more than $1.5 million on his care over three years, says Jimenez wanted to go home.
Underlying the dispute is the broader question of what’s a hospital to do with a patient who requires long-term care, is unable to pay and doesn’t qualify for federal or state aid because of his immigration status. Health care and immigration experts across the country are watching the case, which could go to a jury later in the week, and which could set precedent in Florida.
Jimenez came the U.S. to work as a day laborer, sending money home to his wife and small children. In 2000, a drunk driver crashed into the van he was riding in, leaving the robust soccer player a paraplegic. For more than a year he lingered in a vegetative state before he began to recuperate, eventually reaching a fourth-grade level in cognitive ability. The hospital sent him to a long-term care facility for a brief stint, but eventually he was returned to the hospital for care.
Because Jimenez has diminished capacity to make decisions, his cousin, Montejo Gaspar, was named as his legal guardian. Gaspar appealed a judge’s order approving the move. The appellate court later reversed that order, ruling a state court lacks the authority to decide immigration cases.
But by then, Jimenez had been released from the Guatemalan hospital and was living with his mother in a one-room home in the mountainous state of Huehuetenango, 12 hours from the Guatemalan capital. There is no road to the house, making it nearly impossible for his mother to get help for him in an emergency.
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