Grandma's gone

Family seeks answers in death of beloved matriarch

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 20, 2011

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(Special to the Times)

Eleanor Judy, 92, had knowledge of traditional skills and culture that made her a sought-after Kinaaldá sponsor. Judy, a well-known weaver to Sedona, Ariz., dealers, wove rugs in the Two Grey Hills design.

Eight days before an accident at the Forest Lake Senior Citizens Festival ended in her death, 92-year-old Eleanor Judy of Low Mountain, Ariz., was photographed deftly twirling a lasso at the June 16 event.

Later the same day, her family says, Judy was enticed into joining a game of flag football during which she was knocked to the ground and suffered a hip injury.

The day ended with a trip to the Chinle hospital. From there Judy was taken to the Tuba City hospital, where she died June 23.

Her family still has trouble believing she's gone, and the photo, which illustrated a local news account of the annual elderfest, seems to affirm their account of a lively, hardy Navajo elder who was still enjoying an active life.

"There was nothing wrong with her," said her tearful granddaughter Lindsay Bahe, 30, during a recent visit to the Navajo Times. "She was always doing stuff by herself."

Bahe's mother Clara Judy, 50, agreed, adding that the family has run into a wall of official silence in trying to find out how this could happen.

They want to know why anyone would allow, let alone encourage, a women in her nineties, exhausted by the day's excitement and quietly waiting for a bus ride home, to join a rough game played on an even rougher surface - an unpaved parking lot.

And how could hospitalization for a hip injury end in death?

The family has enlisted another of Judy's granddaughters, legal advocate LaVonne Tsosie-Martinez of Sanders, Ariz., to help them get answers.

Tsosie-Martinez said last week that she will file a wrongful death lawsuit against the Navajo Nation and a malpractice lawsuit against the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corp., which operates the Tuba City hospital where Judy died.

She noted that both the tribe and hospital are withholding information regarding the death, making it difficult to file the lawsuit.

Tsosie-Martinez said that according to the few medical records the family has been able to obtain, Judy was treated for a dislocated hip and then developed pneumonia. She said the official cause of death is listed as "hip fracture which resulted from a fall."

Getting the picture

Clara Judy and her daughter have pieced together a picture of what caused the hip injury by talking to other Low Mountain elders who attended the gathering at Forest Lake.

John Pekin, 65, and Irene Denny, 70, recounted the incident in separate written statements, saying that the planned activities had ended and Eleanor Judy was among a group of elders sitting around and visiting, waiting for the bus to take them back to the Low Mountain Senior Citizen Center.

Then one of the bus drivers, Benson Begay, decided to start a game, which he called "tag" in an interview Oct. 12 with the Navajo Times.

Begay, a Whippoorwill Senior Citizen Center van driver for the past six years, said he encouraged all the elders to participate because it was good exercise.

Pekin and Denny reported that it took a lot of coaxing from him to get Eleanor Judy into the game. The players ranged in age from the mid-50's and up, they said, and the gravel parking lot was rocky and uneven.

Begay emphasized that he didn't witness Eleanor Judy fall.

"To tell the truth, I was turned around doing something else and I didn't see anything until I turned back around and she was on the ground," he recalled.

Who was in charge? That's one of the questions Tsosie-Martinez said she's having trouble getting answered.

Gerald Ahasteen, manager of the Low Mountain Senior Citizen Center where Judy was a member, did not attend the event. Forest Lake Senior Citizen Center supervisor Elsie Benale has not responded to calls from the family and the Navajo Times.

"Where were all the people that work for Senior Citizens? We don't know if they have specific duties during these events," said Clara Judy.

"The game was inappropriate for elders my grandmother's age, and for elders in their 80's and 90's to be playing against elders in their 50's and 60's," Tsosie-Martinez said.

As soon as Judy and Bahe were notified that Eleanor Judy had been taken to the hospital, they rushed there and stayed at her side.

Clara Judy said she thought Ahasteen, the Low Mountain Senior Citizen Center director, would contact them and when he didn't, she started telephoning him for answers and help.

She asked Ahasteen to help the family with lodging and meal expenses so they could stay with their mother and grandmother while she was in the hospital, and said he promised assistance, but it never came.

Just an accident

Adhering to the Navajo way of burial, Judy said she didn't start asking Ahasteen about the events surrounding her mother's hip injury until several days after Eleanor was laid to rest.

Then Judy and Bahe began paying frequent visits to the Low Mountain senior citizen center to talk with Ahasteen. Each time they were told he was unavailable or not in the office.

Bahe said that one day they were at a take-out diner in Window Rock and Ahasteen walked in.

"I saw my mom trying to talk to him and I saw how he tried to avoid her," Bahe recalled. "In the future, we just hope that maybe he'll become a better leader, better person and realize that how he acted and treated us was probably the worst thing to do to us at that time."

After numerous telephone messages, Gerald Ahasteen responded to the Navajo Times and said that what happened to Eleanor Judy, whom he described as "a very active elder," was an accident and "no one's fault."

He noted that all the elders, including Eleanor Judy, signed waivers releasing the senior center from liability when they "willingly" participate in senior citizen events.

Tsosie-Martinez said she's been trying to obtain a copy of the waiver that her grandmother signed but has not received it.

But whether or not elders sign waivers, she emphasized, the program is responsible and obligated to provide age-appropriate activities that are safe.

Tsosie-Martinez said she's been reviewing the policies of the Navajo Area Agency on Aging, which oversees the senior centers for the reservation's 110 chapters, and she's found that their polices are "very old and need to be updated."

She added that her questions about whether the tribe requires workers to be certified and have background checks to work with the elderly have not been answered.

"We believe that like Head Start children, our elders need to be protected," she said. "I think, overall, the program needs to be investigated for abuse of the elderly."

What's been lost

Tsosie-Martinez noted that the tribe's Risk Management Office has offered Clara Judy a settlement, but she has refused it.

Clara Judy said that the family is upset with the tribe for not properly taking care of her mom, but the family is also concerned about other elders under its care too.

"We don't want any other families to go through what we did," she said.

Bahe said she believes her grandmother's death could have been prevented if all the activities at the elderfest were properly chosen and reviewed as safe for the elders.

What happens when a Navajo matriarch dies?

She is the fulcrum of the family. Her presence keeps relationships in balance and gives each member an anchor in life. With her passing, the family struggles to find a new balance, and this can take months or years to work out.

The untimely death of Eleanor Judy is not only a loss to the family but to the tribe, said her daughter.

She was a master weaver in the Two Grey Hills style, and made rugs so exquisite that she could sell them to dealers in Sedona, she said, referring to the high-end Arizona art community.

Eleanor Judy was also sought after for her knowledge about the Kinaald‡, the coming-of-age ceremony for girls.

"My mom could have lived another 10 years," Clara Judy said as she wiped tears from her eyes. "She took care of herself and we took care of her."

NAAA Director Hank Haskie, the Risk Management Office, and the Navajo Nation Department of Justice all declined to comment.

Tuba City Regional Health Care Corp. CEO Joseph Engelken referred all questions to risk manager Shannon Newland, who did not respond to repeated calls from the Navajo Times.

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