SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – A lawyer for a Rapid City-area hospital being sued by a blind man who says the letters KKK were carved into his stomach during surgery said the accusations were contrived by other people and that every scar "is explained by the medical procedures that he underwent to save his life," according to court documents filed Wednesday.
Vern Traversie, a 69-year-old Lakota man living on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, filed a federal lawsuit last month against Rapid City Regional Hospital, its board of directors, several physicians and others. He claims he was left with scars on his abdomen in the shape of the three letters following heart surgery last year.
YouTube videos featuring Traversie went viral in Native American communities earlier this year. In them, Traversie talks about being mistreated at the hospital and shows his abdomen. Although he is blind, Traversie said he was told by others that the scars form the letters.
A May rally in support of Traversie drew hundreds of people, many of whom said his story exemplifies the racism that Native Americans experience in Rapid City. But others said they couldn't make out the letters, including police who investigated his allegations. No criminal charges were filed.
The defendants in the lawsuit said there is no medical evidence to suggest that anyone burned or cut letters into Traversie.
"Every mark on Plaintiff's abdomen is explained by the medical procedures that he underwent to save his life," Jeffrey Hurd, one of the defendant's lawyers, wrote in response to the lawsuit. "Indeed, the allegations of a `KKK' scar were apparently created by a group of unqualified people in Plaintiff's home town, who simply discussed why Plaintiff had certain surgical scars."
The lawyer noted that the people who told Traversie about his scars considered several possibilities, including a single "K," a bite mark, the word "oink," or four "K"s, before settling on the three-letter acronym.
"After reaching this decision through speculation and conjecture, and with no attempt to consult with Plaintiff's healthcare providers ... they told Plaintiff that he had been victimized," Hurd wrote.
The hospital also refutes claims that Traversie was denied pain medication, and noted that he was told to have a home health nurse inspect and care for the incisional wounds after he got home.
Reached by phone at his home Wednesday, Traversie said he could not comment on the case and referred questions to his pastor, Ben Farrar, who is acting as his spokesman. Farrar said he wasn't aware of Wednesday's filing but that he expected the hospital to deny the claims.
Farrar said heart surgery patients can expect to be left with a vertical scar down the sternum and a few horizontal scars where drainage tubes would be inserted -- as can be seen in photos of Traversie.
"What we cannot expect is haphazard slashes all over the abdomen as well as some cuts that seem to form letters of the alphabet. This is not what can be considered normal," Farrar said, adding that Traversie and his attorney will decide what action to take next.