Note: This story is the first installment in a year-long investigation into health services in New York’s jails and prisons by the USA TODAY Network.
Thomas Husar wasn't well when he entered the Broome County jail last October.
A decade-long illness that required high amounts of painkillers had left him grappling with a fragile and complex health history, and it had contributed to the circumstances that had led to his arrest on a probation violation.
But Thomas Husar was alive.
And if he hadn't been in jail, his family says, the night he lay bleeding from an internal ulceration — alone, calling for help, ignored — he likely still would be.
Tom Husar, as his family called him, spent his 40th birthday in a jail cell. Eight days later, he collapsed there, crying for his mom and dad as he was transported to the hospital, according to his parents, who filed a notice of claim Jan. 14 in state Supreme Court against the Broome County Sheriff's Office. The eight-page document is their first legal step toward a potential $5 million lawsuit for negligence and deliberate indifference in the death of their son.
Husar was the ninth inmate to die in the Broome County jail since 2011, according to recent data from the Broome County Sheriff's Office, though his family's notice of claim cites 11 deaths in that time period — two weren't in custody when they died.
Broome County Sheriff David Harder said he couldn't comment on specifics of Husar's death due to the pending court action and HIPAA regulations, but maintained there was no wrongdoing by jail personnel. An autopsy, he said, showed Husar died of natural causes.
The sheriff's office cooperates with the New York Commission of Corrections for all investigations of inmate fatalities, Harder said. After the 2011 death of inmate Alvin Rios Jr., 40, the state watchdog agency decided that he was left "in an emergent, life-threatening status without appropriate medical attention" before he was found dead in the jail. A wrongful death lawsuit in Rios' case resulted in a $62,500 settlement.
"There's no mistreatment here. If people look at the (inmate) death certificates, these people have major medical issues, and that's how they died," Harder said recently. "Our medical staff works very hard. It's the condition of the inmates when they get here, and we do the best we can to treat them."
Mike and Diane Husar allege a different scenario, one in which their son, a 6-foot-5 "softie" at heart who loved coaching basketball and grappled with intense pain for years, was denied timely treatment for a medical emergency.
They say their son cried for help for hours — so did other inmates on his behalf — and they say those cries were ignored. In the early hours of Nov. 6, jail personnel found Husar collapsed in his cell.
The callous negligence of the hours before, his parents say, would cost their son his life.
"Tom died of natural causes," Diane Husar said from the couple's Town of Dickinson home. "But he did not have to die that way."
Broome County jail death: Tom Husar's parents speak about beloved son's last days
Kate Collins, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
Legal action pursued in jail death
The Husars' legal action argues Thomas Husar's death could have been prevented if he'd received adequate medical care while in jail. The notice of claim's allegations are largely based upon information the Husars received from their son in the weeks before he died, legal documents and their lawyer's own investigative efforts in preparation of the family's legal action.
The Husar legal proceedings come amid broader controversy over deaths in the jail during the past decade.
Dig Deeper: Read the court documents
A separate lawsuit, over the 2015 death of Salladin Barton, had been working its way to trial in federal court during the past three years, until a $170,000 settlement was reached Feb. 18, 2020. Barton had been jailed on a probation violation, as well as charges of robbery and grand larceny, and court documents say his death was brought on by untreated pneumonia and two drugs that should not have been prescribed together.
Broome County's jail contracts for medical-related services with Pennsylvania-based Correctional Medical Care Inc., which has contracts with other jails in New York state. Over the years, it also has been the subject of other civil court action related to inmate deaths.
A majority of the Broome County jail deaths since 2011 have been determined as being natural or medical in cause, as well as by suicide. But the deaths have also sparked protests from Binghamton-area activists in recent months about the county jail's medical treatment of inmates.
'There is no definitive treatment'
The path to the jail cell where Husar spent most of his final hours began, his family says, with mysterious pains in his head and abdomen more than a decade ago.
Whenever the pain kicked in, his blood pressure skyrocketed. The pain in his head was worst: He felt like was "just going to blow off," his parents recalled.
It took two years before doctors gave a name to the discomfort that materialized in 2007: systemic mastocytosis, a condition that created high numbers of mast cells in his small bowel wall.
Symptoms of systemic mastocytosis include chronic severe abdominal pain, unpredictable swelling of the ankles to an extent that impedes walking and in other parts of the body, transient numbness, headache, nausea, vomiting, fever and excessive thirst.
In a document attesting to his diagnosis, a doctor who treated Husar in New York City called it an "unusual condition," and said in this case the mast cells were "many-fold too high."
"There is no definitive treatment, and our only recourse is to attempt to control your symptoms with medications," Thomas Husar's doctor told him in the written statement obtained by the Press & Sun-Bulletin / pressconnects.com.
That meant painkillers. Lots of them.
Since 2009, Husar was prescribed high doses of opioid medications, narcotic analgesics including Oxycontin and histamine blockers. He had to take Oxycontin every 12 hours or face severe consequences.
One prescription alone could cost $2,000 a month. Diane, a nurse of 45 years, and Mike, a retired chief clerk of Broome County Court, helped cover the medication bills.
He needed so much medication that hospital doctors sometimes mistook him as a drug-seeker, his parents said. Mike Husar called his son's condition "the other side of the opioids story," because he was dependent on them in order to function every day.
Without them, though, the pain would be intolerable — and withdrawal could be severe.
"I have advised you that you must not run out of pain medications ...," the doctor's statement read, "or you will experience withdrawal symptoms as well as markedly increased pain."
The medication allowed Husar to mask his condition as much as possible.
"You’d think he was normal most of the time, but he was a very proud guy, and people didn’t know Tom was really sick," Mike Husar said. "Pretty much, when he was sick, he’d hunker down and stay put, or be in the hospital."
'The best practice ball player'
Above Tommy Husar's childhood bed was a cutout of NBA icon Michael Jordan, arms outstretched, invincible.
Tommy wasn't much of a runner. He couldn't jump very high. But he had a passion for basketball — and a habit of doing "the opposite of whatever his parents wanted," joked his dad, who'd dreamed of his son playing football instead.
The Chenango Valley High School graduate played as a forward, but when he went to college and tried out for St. Bonaventure University's Division I team, he didn't make the cut. Instead, he proved adept on the practice squad, his parents said, and earned high praise from his coach, who admired his enthusiasm.
After pursuing a master's degree at SUNY Oneonta, Thomas turned his focus to coaching.
"He didn't want to be a basketball coach who had never played college basketball," Mike Husar said of his son. "He's been called the 'best practice ball player they'd ever seen,' but he'd get in a game and get too choked up, stressed out. He wasn't that good, but in practice, he could shoot the lights out and do everything."
Husar spent a year coaching in North Carolina, then took a job as an assistant coach at Mount St. Vincent's in New York City.
But complexities surrounding his chronic medical condition eventually kept him from doing the job. He moved back to Broome County in 2015 to live with his parents after his position with the New York City school was eliminated. He couldn't make ends meet giving private basketball lessons there.
As a child, he'd vowed to one day match Jordan's wingspan. Adulthood had traded Tommy's big dreams for grim realities.
Why Thomas Husar went to jail
In early July 2017, a Binghamton police officer pulled Thomas over in the tree-lined residential area of Hawley and Rutherford streets in Binghamton.
The officer ticketed him for a misdemeanor charge of driving while ability impaired by drugs. Though it's illegal in New York state to drive while under the influence of certain drugs including narcotics, court documents don't specify which drugs Thomas was impaired by.
Police also ticketed him for traffic violations: unlicensed operator, no headlights and leaving the scene of a property damage accident, as well as an unlawful possession of marijuana violation.
At the time, Husar was still prescribed opioids. His doctor had advised that on days he planned to drive, he should take somewhat lower doses than usual but always to carry some medication with him. Even with high doses, his doctor told him, he wouldn't experience the same level of sedation or other side effects as someone not accustomed to the drug.
"Was he supposed to be driving? No," Mike Husar said. "The doctor said Tom had built up such a tolerance to the opioids that they weren't really affecting him. I'd say, 'Don't drive, you're on medication.' I'd give him rides."
Husar's biggest worry after this arrest, his parents said, was that his legal troubles would further affect his future ability to coach.
In March 2018, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug-impaired driving charge and was sentenced in Binghamton City Court to probation for two years.
In September 2018, the Broome County Probation Office issued a written permit that allowed him to leave Broome County, but only for "medical as needed" reasons, according to the document. It allowed for travel throughout New York state, but he was required to notify his probation officer first.
Thomas' parents say he'd miss mandatory probation appointments. And in early 2019, he missed a scheduled court appearance that landed in him in Broome County jail for a week for violating probation.
In October 2019, according to the Husars' notice of claim, Thomas traveled to New York City for a medical treatment. He was jailed again, charged with violating terms of his probation by not contacting his probation officer before leaving the county.
He wouldn't live to face judgment for the charge.
Husar's final weeks
The troubles began before Husar even made it to jail.
While police were transporting Thomas to the facility the afternoon of Oct. 16, he suffered a possible seizure. Medical personnel found him shaking inside the police transport van, according to Broome County Sheriff's Office records. He was taken to the emergency room at UHS Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City.
Two days later, while in the jail's medical unit Oct. 18, he was treated for another apparent seizure, according to sheriff's office records obtained by a Freedom of Information Law request.
On Oct. 22, a corrections officer found him shaking while lying unresponsive on his bed in the jail cell. Sheriff's office records say medical staff at the jail used smelling salts to wake him up, and he was cleared by medical personnel to remain in his cell in the jail's Medical Unit.
It was four days before his 40th birthday.
During that time, Husar's parents say he was not given his prescribed opioid medication. Instead, Diane Husar said, he was given morphine, which she claimed "was not comparable."
Jails typically have a formulary regarding certain drugs the facility medical providers are allowed to administer, and inmates are generally not allowed to bring their prescriptions with them, said Ray Schlather, the Ithaca-based lawyer handling the Husars' case. Inmates are evaluated by medical personnel, he said, and necessary medications or a comparable drug can be provided to the extent the jail's formulary allows them to be provided.
Opioids are among the medications not allowed in jail.
Correctional facilities generally either establish drug formularies themselves or delegate that responsibility to their contractors. Formularies dictate what specific drugs in each therapeutic class are available for physicians to prescribe without further approval, and they are established to offer a limited but viable choice of drugs (if more than one is available) for any condition, according to a 2017 report on prison pharmaceuticals.
The weeks Husar spent in jail during October 2019 were largely while waiting for an assigned defense lawyer and a court date. He was scheduled to appear in court the morning of Nov. 6, 2019, according to the notice of claim.
After being taken to the jail's medical unit for the apparent seizure, Thomas told his parents, he was transferred to the jail's general population.
The Husars' notice of claim alleges a corrections officer requested that Thomas be returned to the medical unit because of his condition a week before his death.
His parents say it never happened.
Husar lawyer: 'He was totally ignored'
The information-gathering process ahead of the anticipated lawsuit is ongoing, said Schlather, who filed the Husars' notice of claim.
So far, this is what the Husars and their lawyer allege:
Jail personnel were "fully aware" of Husar's medical condition, but they failed to provide the required treatment.
"Thomas had no other way to get the medical care he required," the notice of claim alleges, and he was "at the complete mercy" of jail personnel.
Husar's medical condition began to deteriorate during the final 12 to 14 hours of his life. On Nov. 5, around 2 p.m., he called for help from his cell.
According to the notice of claim, "some jail personnel callously told other jail personnel to 'ignore him,' and no life-saving measures were implemented or even attempted."
At the time Thomas Husar was asking for help, Schlather said, he would have been showing "very visible, very obvious problems."
"He was totally ignored," Schlather said.
Mike and Diane Husar don't know whether the ulceration of the artery was directly linked to their son's systemic mastocytosis, or whether it sprang from another malady. But their notice of claim argues Thomas could have been treated sooner and likely would still be alive if he hadn't been incarcerated.
At 2:38 a.m., the notice of claim says, jail personnel found Thomas collapsed and nearly unconscious on the floor of his cell.
"As he was removed," the notice states, "he called out for his mom and dad."
Husar was taken to UHS Wilson Medical Center and later pronounced dead.
Diane Husar got the call around 5:30 that morning. She answered, still groggy and agitated from being awakened, assuming it was another pesky robocall.
"Your son has taken a turn for the worse," she remembers the doctor saying, "and he's in grave condition."
Was 'natural cause' death preventable?
Months later, the memory of that early morning brings Mike and Diane Husar to tears.
Diane pauses to collect herself before describing seeing her son's body at the hospital.
At that point, she recalls, voice shaking, they hadn't been told how he died.
Because he died while in custody, a law enforcement investigation had begun. Officers told her she wasn't allowed to touch Tom.
He left behind a younger sister, Julie, and her husband, along with an extended family and his girlfriend Abby, according to his obituary. A copy of Thomas Husar's death certificate, issued later, stated the manner of his death was by natural cause, the result of bleeding out from the ulceration of an artery.
What's left for Mike and Diane and their family now feels hollow, they said, a swirl of grief and confusion that has lingered these past months. And there's a nagging thought Diane can't shake.
She didn't get to kiss her son goodbye.
On a hallway shelf in Mike and Diane's home are two neatly gift-wrapped boxes. Presents for Tom's 40th birthday — a Tommy Hilfiger dress shirt, a bottle of his favorite cologne.
They were saving them for their son.
They don't know what they'll do with them now.
Follow Anthony Borrelli on Twitter @PSBABorrelli.