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`I have hope,' says Linda David, survivor of unspeakable abuse: `I MUST have it'

Seattle Times staff reporter

Linda David's face is a map of scar tissue, her nose a lumpy protrusion, her forehead a terrain of knots and bumps. Many teeth are missing. Though her hair hides them, her ears are cauliflowered, worse than any boxer's.

In the years she was trapped in her husband's dark, filthy sailboat - her only regular companions the German shepherds she fought with for food - David lost an estimated 30 to 40 percent of her brain mass (it shrank like a prune) from repeated trauma to her head, one expert said.

Three and one-half years after she was found and rescued, the 51-year-old Everett woman has difficulty speaking. She works hard to enunciate and find the right words. At other times, her speech is so slurred and quick it's impossible to understand.

While doctors, mental-health professionals and other experts describe David as the most physically traumatized living person they have ever seen, she hasn't lost her interest in people, her charm, her sense of possibility.

"I have hope," David said recently, struggling to enunciate the words. "I feel it's a matter of must. I must have it."

For the first time since she was rescued from her husband's sailboat in January 1997, David's court-appointed guardian allowed her to meet with a reporter at the Seattle-area nursing home where she has lived since her rescue.

Her husband, Victor David, is in jail and charged with assaulting her repeatedly, and her attorney is suing the state for $55 million for failing to protect her. Linda David's case has become emblematic of a flawed social-service system. Yet she is unaware she became a cause celebre.

Seated in a wheelchair inside her sunny room - dressed in a red gym suit and blue Keds - she is a gracious hostess to visitors who have stopped in to see her.

One condition placed on the interview was that there be no questions about her life on the boat or about her husband. Those topics are too upsetting for her to focus on and talk about, her guardian and lawyer say.

The only time she mentions her husband is when she's asked about her wedding ring.

"Vic Matthew David," she says, almost automatically. Then a pensive expression crosses her face. "He's still in my mind and heart."

Eager to connect

Despite her communication problems, David is interested in her guests, eager to connect. Her head tilts, her hands rest on her wheelchair tray, gnarled fingers clutching a stuffed cat.

She's trying to talk about another cat, Tessie, the one she owned as a child, and about the place where she grew up, Ballard. She can remember her old home and proudly recalls the phone number: Sunset-3 3113.

She has a harder time with current events. Asked who the president is, she looks at her lap and squints in thought. Washington? No, he was the first, she corrects herself. After two more guesses she comes up with the right answer: Bill Clinton.

Asked about the time of year, she ponders a moment: "It's probably spring."

Now she's focused on the horses she rode as a teenager: Hotsie, Lady and Kismet. She repeats the names several times, nodding with satisfaction. "I know basically what I'm doing (on a horse)," she says, with sudden and surprising confidence. "I know what to do."

Her thoughts shoot back to a moment many years ago when a horse she was riding fell and she managed to jump off.

"I wasn't hurt at all," she recalls, clearly seeing the incident in her mind. "One small bruise. No big thing."

She got back on that horse, she tells her visitors. Otherwise the animal would have had the upper hand. "No way can I allow that," she says.

Rescue brings sense of safety

When rescue workers boarded her husband's stinking, rotting 30-foot sailboat on Jan. 31, 1997, they found Linda David jammed into the bow, covered with junk. Seven growling German shepherds surrounded her.

Her body and clothes were covered with vomit and dog feces. She was brain-damaged, to the point where she was virtually immobilized. Her legs, arms and fingers were deformed from years of untreated fractures. Her nose, which had been broken repeatedly, was distorted. She was emaciated, at about 5-foot-4 weighing just 105 pounds.

Weeks later, she was moved into the nursing home and during the time she's been there, David has improved in small but important ways, her caretakers say.

"Probably the biggest difference is socially and psychologically," said Chuck Bruce, administrator for the facility. "When she first got here, she'd scream out for no apparent reason. She was obviously very traumatized. She's much more content and happy and can laugh and smile and engage with others."

"She loves to talk to people," said Kathy Rust, a nursing assistant who has worked with David from the beginning. "She's always thanking you for doing something for her."

David has a TV in her room and despite poor vision she sometimes watches it, her wheelchair pulled very close to the set. Radio music is another thing she enjoys and finds "quite relaxing."

She's a healthy eater and has gained 85 pounds since her rescue - "a little bit more than I wanted to," she says, smiling shyly.

But the brain damage and repeated fractures she sustained while on the sailboat have left her unable to walk or even to lift herself into her wheelchair. Brain and eye trauma have left her blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. She has severe memory loss and has trouble speaking. Her sense of smell is gone. She's incontinent and needs help feeding herself. It takes two people to bathe and dress her.

After an initial flurry of medical tests and cataract surgery following her removal from the boat, David has had little medical attention other than routine checkups from the nursing home's physician. While she receives basic assistance from trained nursing assistants at the facility, she doesn't get the kind of individual, round-the-clock care or intensive therapy (physical, occupational and speech) that her guardian and attorney are hoping for her to have one day.

What she does get at the nursing home, however, is a sense of personal safety.

`There's always somebody around," she says, with intense emotion. "If I have a bad problem, I could yell and someone could come help me."

Home visits ended

Last year, David became a symbol for the kind of vulnerable adult whom state workers are required - but failed - to protect.

In 1984, Linda David began receiving state aid because she was disabled. Within a year, she started receiving additional state funds under a Department of Social and Health Services program known as Chore Services, to pay for a caregiver. She chose her husband, and DSHS accepted the arrangement.

The caregiver money was approved because she was said to have multiple sclerosis (MS), an assumption based not on medical tests but on a one-sentence notation by a doctor in 1985.

From the mid-1980s until 1997, Linda David lived on her husband's boat, which was moored offshore at several different marinas.

For much of that time, DSHS caseworkers, who were required to perform periodic in-person visits, were suspicious that she was being abused. For one thing, her medical reports as far back as 1979 indicated signs of physical abuse and neglect. For another, when state workers visited her, Victor David always answered for his wife.

Caseworkers raised questions but ultimately didn't act on their suspicions. They stopped visiting the boat in 1988 and stopped checking on Linda David in person in 1993. A scheduled assessment in 1995 ended up being done by phone.

Forty months after the last visit, Linda David was finally rescued after a DSHS employee tried to locate her at an Everett marina.

Snohomish County prosecutors allege that Victor David kept his wife a virtual prisoner for years, beating her, all the while collecting up to about $800 a month in state money intended for her care. Victor David, 60, has pleaded not guilty to assault and other charges. Now in Snohomish County Jail awaiting trial in September, he faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted.

Linda David's attorney, David P. Moody, has sued DSHS and six of its employees for failing to protect Linda David. The civil suit, scheduled for trial in March, alleges they failed to check on her properly, allowing the abuse to continue despite clear warning signs.

After the case was highlighted in The Seattle Times last May, Lyle Quasim, then the secretary of DSHS, rushed to the caseworkers' defense, saying they were blameless and ultimately responsible for her rescue.

But Gov. Gary Locke quickly overruled Quasim and acknowledged the state had failed Linda David. He appointed a task force to recommend ways to avoid similar tragedies and allocated $2 million for nearly 5,000 additional visits to monitor elderly and disabled residents in home care. He also ordered DSHS to develop proposals to enhance the quality and safety of home care.

Those proposals and task-force recommendations helped form legislation passed last session that includes increased background checks for people who work with vulnerable adults and more training for caregivers.

Meanwhile, a leading medical expert has concluded that Linda David does not have MS and that her deteriorating health over the years was caused not by disease but by consistent physical abuse. Dr. Craig H. Smith, a neurologist, is director of the Regional Multiple Sclerosis Center at Swedish Medical Center/Seattle, the nation's largest such facility. He has reviewed all of David's medical records from the 1970s onward and has concluded her most serious decline occurred after 1984, when she went from walking, talking and seeing to being wheelchair-bound, mute and virtually blind.

"There's nothing in it that's MS," said Smith. "She has all the signs of trauma and none of the history that you see with MS. . . . Her whole brain is shrunken from the trauma. Her brain has been pulverized."

Vulnerable from the outset

As a child, Linda David was mildly retarded. Instead of going to Ballard High School like others in her neighborhood, she attended the Pacific Prevocational School, a now-defunct school near Seattle University that catered to students with learning disabilities or delayed development.

While attending Pacific, she also lived at a residential facility that catered to teenagers with special needs, according to Dr. Virginia Harris, a psychiatrist who has researched David's background.

"From the outset Mrs. David was a vulnerable person," said Harris, adding that records indicate David's reading level was significantly below that of a high-school student when she graduated from Pacific.

Yet there were no physical impairments or signs of brain damage, doctors say.

"She didn't have any obvious neurological problems," Smith said.

Hope for improvement

Moody, who has sued the state on David's behalf, said a court victory or settlement would mean a world of difference to his client, who is indigent save a trust from her mother's estate, which generates a small amount of income.

"She needs a battery of private-care services and therapeutic remedies for the rest of her life," he said. "It will take two full-time caregivers - if not three - to provide the basic necessities required."

DSHS officials say that confidentiality laws prohibit them from discussing the circumstances of individual clients.

Medicaid funds administered by the state pay the basic costs for David to stay in the nursing home, about $36,000 annually. There she is one of roughly 80 residents who get help from about four to eight nursing assistants, depending on the time of day.

Most of the other residents are elderly, many senile. And David's guardian, Lynne Riensche, believes it's an inappropriate setting for David to make friends or thrive.

While the nursing home has provided David with key essentials, she isn't getting the intensive, personalized care she deserves, said Moody.

Her overall prognosis is not promising, Smith said. Brain damage has been devastating and she will never walk or move independently again.

But her vital organs - her heart, lungs and kidneys - have managed to survive well through years of deprivation, and her life expectancy is normal - perhaps another 25 or 30 years, he said.

"It is important to remember that her disease process is not that of a degenerative disease . . . and she has never had the opportunity to achieve rehabilitative potential with her isolation, sensory deprivation and repeated neurological insults," Smith wrote late last year in an opinion on David's medical history. "As her psychological damage is healed she will be more responsive to physical rehabilitation."

And Don Dutton, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and an expert on spousal abuse, says the reverse is also true: The more physical therapy she gets, the more she will improve emotionally.

Dutton, who has seen David six times since her rescue, says David has exhibited classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder: nightmares, occasional screaming, outbursts of anger. The episodes were more severe when she first arrived at the home but the symptoms persist.

"You've got someone suffering internally but so damaged she can't express it," Dutton said. "It's the worst-case scenario.'

Speech therapy and other efforts to improve her ability to communicate would help David work through some of the turmoil, he said.

In addition to benefiting from counseling and speech therapy, Smith believes David may be able to improve her ability to move - learning to move her arms more, learning to feed herself without assistance. And her communication could be improved through the use of computers, he said.

It is evident that Linda David wants to get better.

She remembers the freedom she felt riding a horse, she says, and it's clear she's longing for greater mobility. She demonstrates how she is practicing moving her legs and pushing her body upward in her wheelchair.

"While I'm sitting here talking, I'll exercise," she struggles to say. "I feel it would be a godsend if I could . . . escape the wheelchair. Possibly someday to escape the wheelchair."

Anne Koch's phone message number is 206-464-3303. Her e-mail address is

Published Correction Date: 7/11/2000 - Dr. Victoria Harris is the psychiatrist who researched the background of Linda David, an Everett woman whose husband allegedly subjected her to years of abuse on his sailboat. The case was first highlighted in The Seattle Times in May 1999. This article gave an incorrect first name for Dr. Harris and an incorrect date for when the case was first highlighted.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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