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A son's death in a 'safe' place

Parents ask how their child could have killed himself while under County-USC's care.

June 05, 2008|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Four weeks ago, Maria and Rafael Alarcon took their son, Jorge, to the hospital, worried that he had become psychotic. After months of odd behavior, he'd told his mother he was a lion. He tried to bite his father.

Just having Jorge admitted to the County-USC Medical Center mental hospital in Rosemead brought his family a measure of relief. "My daughter said, 'Bueno. He's there. He's protected. He's safe,' " said Maria Alarcon of Pasadena..

On Monday, the family learned that the 26-year-old UCLA graduate had killed himself. His sister, Claudia Wells, 28, said it was his third attempt in a monthlong stay.

"I never expected this," Maria Alarcon, 54, said. "How could this happen in a hospital?"

According to the family, Alarcon, who studied engineering at Cal State L.A. and UCLA, was on suicide watch as late as Saturday. About 5 a.m. Monday, Alarcon hanged himself with a T-shirt in his bathroom, said his father, Rafael, 54.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office has ruled the death a suicide.

"The death was unexpected and is being thoroughly investigated by this department," said Michael Wilson, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, which runs County-USC, in a statement. He declined further comment.

Suicides are rare at in-patient mental hospitals, said Dr. Martin Leamon, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at UC Davis. "It's always a very significant event that requires a very, very thorough review of what allowed it to happen."

In 2007, two patients committed suicide by hanging themselves using a sheet tied to a bedroom locker in separate incidents at Atascadero State Hospital on the Central Coast. A similar suicide occurred at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino a year earlier. In 2005, three patients hanged themselves in separate incidents at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk.

In general, suicidal patients should be closely monitored and, in extreme cases, a staffer should follow the patient even during showers and while using the toilet, Leamon said.

Wells said the hospital should have known to keep a close eye on her brother. He had been on suicide watch twice before, she said.

"It shouldn't have happened there," Claudia said.

In Jorge Alarcon's bedroom at the family's Pasadena home, his parents spread out their son's possessions on his twin bed, covered with a blue blanket -- a guitar, a high school yearbook and wooden crosses he liked to make after he became a devout Catholic.

Alarcon was the son of Mexican immigrants, an accountant and a preschool teacher. He was bright and happy growing up, his mother said. He began taking classes at Cal State L.A. while he was still a high school student in Pasadena. He liked to dance, camp, run and swim.

"He was always smiling, laughing and having a good sense of humor," Maria Alarcon said.

After completing a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at Cal State L.A., he earned a master's degree in biomedical engineering at UCLA. He later spent time traveling in Mexico. When he came back, he told his parents he wanted to become a priest or go to Thailand as a missionary.

"I said, 'Jorge, you are changing your life from being an engineer and wanting to have a family. You are choosing a path that will be hard,' " Maria Alarcon said. "He said, 'Not to worry, Mom. I feel this is my path. I'm happy with this.' "

His parents eventually supported his decision. But Jorge began changing. He stopped going out with his friends. About six months ago, he started going door to door holding a large wooden cross to preach and bless houses.

Soon, he was losing track of time and staying out past midnight, Rafael Alarcon said. Neighbors complained. His father began accompanying him, to keep an eye on him.

A trip to visit relatives in Mexico over the winter helped improve his mental state, his parents said.

"He was back to his old self," his mother said. "Forgive me if I caused any pain," he told them.

He told his parents he would look for a job. Then he stopped eating. His parents told him, "You are praying too much. You are fasting too much."

One day, Jorge started talking nonsense. He said he felt he was carrying the sins of the world. "I thought he was just playing with me," Maria Alarcon said. But, "he was upset. He's usually never upset."

He was admitted to County-USC and later transferred to County-USC's mental hospital in Rosemead. Doctors believed he was schizophrenic or bipolar, according to the family.

Two weeks into his stay, his symptoms appeared mild. But by the third week, Jorge's condition worsened. He stopped eating and bathing.

"He believed he was a demon," his mother said.

The Alarcons visited Jorge twice a day. He cried like a baby during their visits. He confided to his sister that he had tried to commit suicide twice, which the hospital had not told his parents, Wells said.

At one point, Maria Alarcon said she asked the hospital to release him so she could take him elsewhere. Hospital officials told her he was a threat to her and himself.

On Friday, the family said, hospital staff told the Alarcons to stop hugging and spoon-feeding him because it was hurting his recovery. They complied.

On Sunday, he was quiet, they said, and his body shook. The next morning he was found hanging in the bathroom.

"I was shocked," his mother said. "I still don't believe it."

--

ronlin@latimes.com

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