Bexar County, University Health pay $175,000 settlement to woman who suffered lithium overdose in jail

Heather Aguilar slipped into a coma after lithium treatments while in custody

Aguilar's settlement totals $175,000, records show. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – A San Antonio woman who suffered a seizure and slipped into a coma after she was given lithium treatments while in custody in 2020 has been given a settlement from Bexar County and University Health totaling $175,000, public records confirm.

Heather Aguilar, who spent 46 days in Bexar County custody on assault charges eventually dismissed by prosecutors, sued the county and University Health in 2021, claiming her civil rights were violated and conditions during her confinement were unconstitutional.

Bexar County Commissioners approved the county’s portion of the settlement, $87,500, during its Nov. 29 meeting.

Aguilar received an additional $87,500 from University Health in a release and indemnity agreement signed Dec. 9, records released Thursday by University Health show.

Her federal lawsuit was formally dismissed last month, federal court records confirm.

Aguilar, who has a documented history of bipolar disorder, was arrested in November 2020 after her mother called 911 and said Aguilar tried to break her arm during a dispute at a home.

Responding officers arrived to find a driveway full of items that had been thrown around and broken and were told that neighbors had held Aguilar down after she damaged some property.

Though the call was labeled a “mental health disturbance in progress” and a responding San Antonio police officer noted Aguilar’s erratic behavior and history of mental illness, Aguilar was arrested and charged with assault of the elderly causing bodily injury, records show.

WARNING: Graphic details below

As Aguilar was taken into custody, she struggled against her restraints and at one point struck her head as she was being dragged out of a vehicle, her lawsuit stated.

“Her handcuffs were fastened so tightly that it broke the skin on her wrists and ankles. The deputies took Heather to a private room in the booking area. Heather tried to tell the deputies that her handcuffs were too tight and that she was losing sensation in her wrists. The deputies saw Heather but ignored her,” the suit stated.

The suit also detailed a second incident during Aguilar’s booking in which a deputy used a stun gun on her. She then bit a responding deputy on his ankle after removing the barbs of the stun gun from her thigh.

Aguilar was moved into a holding cell without a toilet and eventually defecated on herself after deputies ignored her pleas to use a toilet, the suit stated. Deputies did not give her a chance to clean herself before she was moved to suicide watch, according to the lawsuit.

Aguilar received sporadic medical care over the next week while the wounds on her wrist became infected, the suit stated.

Pictures included in the suit showed deep lacerations on both of her wrists and a badly swollen right hand as well as a deep cut on one of Aguilar’s ankles.

Jail medical staff eventually decided that Aguilar needed to be transferred to University Hospital to be treated for cellulitis, a skin infection, on her hand.

“There is a culture or a practice or custom in that area, which is basically people are ignored,” Aguilar’s attorney, Leslie Sachanowicz, said during a 2021 interview with KSAT.

While hospitalized, officials determined that Aguilar was severely manic and psychotic and informed the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office that she would need a competency hearing for her criminal charges, records show.

Doctors also began treating Aguilar with lithium, a powerful mood stabilizer used to treat bipolar disorder.

Aguilar, a registered nurse since 1999 whose license went inactive in December 2020, told KSAT that she herself had administered the drug to patients only a handful of times the past two decades.

After Aguilar was returned to jail, her treatments of lithium and antibiotics continued, records show.

Aguilar, however, began to have blurred vision, diarrhea and problems with her balance that included the inability to stand or walk, the suit stated.

She also told jail medical staff that she needed to stop taking lithium, according to the suit.

Aguilar was eventually examined by a nurse in early December 2020, but was not taken to a hospital.

A day later, as deputies tried to get her off the floor of her cell, Aguilar suffered a seizure, records show.

Her next memory was waking up in the intensive care unit, back at University Hospital, where she underwent dialysis treatments and blood transfusions, according to records.

“It really kind of, you know, smacks of kind of a third-world country type treatment,” Sachanowicz previously said.

Prosecutors dismissed both criminal charges against Aguilar in late 2020, court records show.

Aguilar, who lost more than 40 pounds during her 46 days in custody, was eventually released from the hospital into the care of a rehabilitation center.

She has permanent scars on her wrists and ankles and went through physical therapy to improve her gait, balance, lower body strength and mobility and to regain her functional independence, Sachanowicz previously said.

Aguilar also went through occupational therapy to increase her upper body strength and attended speech therapy for cognitive and vocabulary issues and to correct motor skills impacted while she was in custody, according to Sachanowicz.

Bexar County’s portion of the settlement was paid from county funds, instead of from an insurance policy, a county spokeswoman confirmed this week.

BCSO officials did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment on the settlement.

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About the Author:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.