Cindy Powell’s sisters both say her 50 suicide attempts weren’t what they seemed.
“She didn’t want to die; she just wanted help,” said Jackie Feik, who traveled from her Port Orchard, Wash., home to Redmond to settle her younger sister’s affairs.
She sat in Cindy Powell’s normally tidy studio apartment in Redmond on Thursday night, wondering what went wrong when her sister committed suicide at St. Charles Bend this week.
Feik, 54, pointed out blood stains on a white and pink bedspread from Powell cutting herself in her apartment last week. Her sisters found a blood-stained knife they think Cindy used to hurt herself.
Powell jumped from a balcony in the hospital’s main lobby Monday after she broke free from two escorts who were taking her to a secure mental health facility, said Robin Henderson, director of behavioral services at the hospital.
Powell, 51, had been a patient since Saturday, when she attempted suicide by overdosing on a sedative, Henderson said.
When she jumped from the balcony, Powell landed on her back, hit her head and ultimately died of head trauma, Henderson said.
But Feik and her youngest sister, Bonda Powell, say Cindy was more than just a mental health patient. She was a “girly girl” who loved to watch thunderstorms and had her proudest moments when she worked with the Redmond Civil Air Patrol as a spotter, Feik said.
And she had the rather un-ladylike habit of chewing “bandits,” small packets of chewing tobacco.
Pleas for help
Cindy Powell lived a life of depression and darkness, with brief moments of sunshine, her sisters said.
“I don’t think Cindy’s had many bright spots for, I don’t know, 10 or 12 years,” Feik said. “She didn’t enjoy anything anymore.”
Meticulous notes Powell left behind document her misery. Physical problems like severe headaches and an inability to sleep are listed in the notes.
Powell wrote things like “I feel like I’m fading away” and “Please help me!!!”
Other notes have mundane details like what medications she took and when.
They affected her short-term memory, Feik explained, so Powell wrote down nearly everything she needed to remember.
Powell had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and chemical dependence, according to St. Charles.
Years of medical documentations show she also had severe depression.
The bag of pills she took for those conditions sat on a large area rug as Powell’s sisters talked about her lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Powell started behaving oddly when she was about 14, her sisters said. She believed that she could conjure spirits with a Ouija board and once tried to jump out of a second-story window.
Her parents were alcoholics, Feik and Bonda Powell said, who moved around a lot to avoid bill collectors.
As she got older, Powell became a regular runaway and ended up in homes for runaway girls more than once, Bonda Powell said.
“Her mental illness built up and built up,” she said. “Mom and dad would try to take her to the doctor, but nobody could ever find anything wrong with her.”
When she got into her mid-20s, Cindy Powell went to work with the Redmond Civil Air Patrol, where her father was employed as well, her sisters said. She worked as a “spotter,” going up in planes to look for fires, people lost in the woods or downed planes.
“That was her greatest love,” Bonda Powell said. “I don’t know what went wrong after that, but something snapped in her.”
The women said that Cindy Powell had been on a downward spiral ever since.
And the family’s greatest challenge has been getting her the care she needs, they said.
“You talk about a breakdown in the mental health care system in Oregon, I mean our sister is the example of that,” Feik said.
Medical documents show visits to numerous doctors, but Powell didn’t seem to get better.
She tried committing suicide so many times her sisters lost count.
“My father-in-law was in the hospital for open heart surgery in 1970, and she was in a nearby hospital for attempted suicide,” Feik said.
But she always hurt herself in a place where she knew someone would find her, Feik said.
“When you try to commit suicide that many times, if you really want to, you’re going to succeed,” Feik said. “She really just wanted help.”
Powell’s final suicide attempt came as she was being taken to get the help she craved for so long, said Henderson, of St. Charles.
She had been under 24-hour observation since Saturday, Henderson said. Two doctors had determined she was a danger to herself and placed her on an involuntary mental health hold.
Just before she died, she had made a “verbal contract” with health care providers that she wouldn’t hurt herself and agreed to go to Sageview, a 15-bed secured facility for intensive mental health treatment.
Her purse was left in the admitting area downstairs, Henderson said, because patients who are a possible danger to themselves or others aren’t allowed to have their belongings in their rooms.
Two health care workers took her to get her things and then, in a deviation from normal protocols, walked her through the lobby, Henderson said.
“Our standard procedure is not to go through the main lobby, but we took a little bit of a detour because of her circumstance,” Henderson said.
That’s when she broke away from the two hospital workers, who were not restraining her.
“At that point, she bolted, ran up the stairs to our cafeteria area, jumped over the railing and stopped ever so briefly, then fell,” Henderson said.
Emergency responders were there within seconds and restored Powell’s breathing.
But it was too late, Henderson said. The injuries she sustained left her brain-dead.
Henderson said that Powell was not restrained because that could have done “extraordinary psychological and emotional harm.”
And the practice of restraining a mentally ill patient who is not violent is not allowed by the Joint Commission, which accredits Cascade Healthcare Community, St. Charles’ parent company, Henderson said.
The police weren’t notified about Powell’s suicide until Tuesday because she had survived the fall, said Shelly Brooks, communications director for Cascade Healthcare. Hospital officials confirmed her brain death and then, because Powell was an organ donor, she was maintained on life support until the necessary procedures could be performed.
Henderson said the hospital is reviewing its transfer protocols and has implemented the use of a wheelchair with every patient transfer.
But her sisters say they don’t understand why more wasn’t done to prevent Cindy Powell’s suicide.
“How does somebody go to a hospital who is suicidal and looking for help and ends up committing suicide with two hospital personnel by her side?” Feik said.
She said they hope to sprinkle Cindy Powell’s remains over the Redmond Airport area.