Emory Lee did not live an easy life, nor did he have an easy death.
Lee, 21, died Saturday night at St. Elizabeths mental hospital, where he was undergoing tests, after being kept in a locked "seclusion room" that hospital officials acknowledge was too hot.
Profoundly retarded, with a history of epileptic seizures, heart problems and delayed speech, Lee had recently started having hallucinations and showed increasing signs of aggressive behavior, according to a member of an evaluating team that was trying to get him proper treatment and training.
When he died Saturday, Lee had been "in and out of seclusion for a couple of days," said Dr. Bernard Arons, who was acting superintendent at St. Elizabeths yesterday.
Hospital spokesman Harold Thomas said "the building was hotter than it should have been" because the day was unseasonably warm and it takes hours for the facility to cool after the heat has been turned off. "We know it was hot in the room," Thomas said, but he could not say just what the temperature was.
The policy of the hospital is to test every three hours whether patients are ready to come out of the seclusion room, Arons said. Staff members also are to check on patients in seclusion every 15 minutes. According to hospital officials, the hospital logs indicate this was done, but at the 10:45 p.m. check Lee was found in "acute distress" and died without being resuscitated.
The D.C. medical examiner's office has done an autopsy but has not yet determined the cause of death, city officials said. St. Elizabeths is conducting its own investigation of the incident.
Lee's unusual death has prompted questions and concerns from advocates of the mentally retarded about the way St. Elizabeths dealt with him.
Lee lived with his mother, Carolyn Worthy, on Ninth Street SE and attended St. John's Child Development Center for education and training. Worthy and George Liacopoulos, St. John's director of evaluation and research, said Lee occasionally had behavior problems but that both his mother and the school were able to handle it.
"He had temper tantrums," said Liacopoulos. "It was always manageable here," at St. John's, which Lee had attended for two years.
The seclusion room "was still unbearably hot . . . and reeked of urine" yesterday, when St. John's staff members went to see it, Liacopoulos said. "It's hard to imagine that [Lee] was all right during one 15-minute check and then dead the next," he added.
Staff members at St. John's were trying to prepare Lee for a change. He would have turned 22 today, ending the legal responsibility of the D.C. public schools for his education.
The St. John's staff wanted him to get into another of their day training programs and a residential program. But Liacopoulos said they were concerned that Lee had been taking too many "heavy-duty" drugs to control his behavior and suggested a comprehensive evaluation.
Lee first was taken to D.C. General, but doctors there were not able to deal with someone so severely retarded, he said.
"It's a very tragic example of the kind of concern we have been trying to express about the potential for [problems] with mental health facilities not prepared to deal with the mentally retarded," said Vincent Gray, head of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens. "Seclusion is not a treatment technique."