In April 2004, I was working on a news story about a Wisconsin prison inmate who literally went from black to white. He'd been sprayed with chemicals in 1999 during a prison uprising at a for-profit prison in Tennessee which the state was then using for its excess capacity.
The inmate, Ronnie Nicholson, was allegedly not allowed to shower for eight days, while the chemicals burned into his skin, causing it to turn splotchy and pale, even on his face. Then it took 16 months of pleading before the state Department of Corrections agreed to let him see a dermatologist.
I normally would not have been able to write about this case, because I wouldn't want to drag this inmate into the public eye only to have him be scorned and humiliated. For his complaint to be credible, he would need an advocate, someone with medical knowledge and authority who wasn't afraid to speak out. And such people are rarer than nice days in hell.
But then I learned that Linda Farley, a Madison-area physician, had been brought into this case. I knew from past stories that she and her husband Gene were physicians of uncommon courage. She did not let me down.
"His case, and I'm sure many others we don't know about, seems an egregious case of neglect," Farley told me. She catalogued the official response as Nicholson's skin went from black to white: "Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing."
Linda Farley died yesterday at age 80. The news comes just as the debate over health care reform, an issue she championed for decades, reaches critical mass. It was an issue on which she and Gene spoke eloquently and with authority.
In November 2004, Isthmus contributing writer Esty Dinur wrote a fine story about the Farleys and their mission. It's certainly still worth reading now.