Cheryl Yudall spent most of her life in a Philadelphia nursing home for people with developmental disabilities. It was there, on January 26, that the 50-year-old was found face down on the floor in a pool of urine, choking on a large wad of paper that had been shoved down her throat.
Five days later she died.
No one in the authorities has said how a 6- or 7-inch paper towel or disinfectant wipe ended up in the trachea of a woman with cerebral palsy and a profound intellectual disability. The medical examiner’s office said it could not determine Yevdal’s manner of death, and the police investigation did not lead to any arrests.
But Yudal’s mother’s attorney, in a new wrongful-death lawsuit, is blaming an unidentified Merakey Woodhaven employee — and suggests Yudal herself left a disturbing clue about how she was treated at the place she called home for four decades.
“She was so sweet and innocent and helpless and she depended on them to take care of her and love her and keep her safe,” Yudal’s mother, Christine Sivat, said in a phone interview. “I just thought they would protect her.”
In a written statement to The Associated Press, Meraki said he “denies any responsibility” for Yudal’s death, which he called a “serious and tragic incident.” The organization said it is cooperating with state and local investigations.
“She was a respected member of the Merakey community and we were honored to have her under our care for more than 40 years,” said Merakey, a provider of developmental, behavioral health and education services with nearly 700 locations nationwide.
Cheryl Yudall, who was born three months premature, moved to Woodhaven as a child. She loved nursery rhymes, doo-wop music, and especially Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”—every time her mother put it down, Eudal would smile, clap her hands, and rock back and forth in her wheelchair.
Christine Sivatt said she thought everything was fine.
But in January 2021, a year before her death, Sherrill suffered a broken leg that went undiagnosed, the lawsuit says. Then, after an X-ray confirmed the fracture, staff failed to put an immobilizer on her leg as required, telling the attending physician weeks later that they didn’t know how, the lawsuit says.
In another incident in September 2021, Yudal was reported to have watery eyes and a swollen cheek, which Woodhaven attributed to the fall, the lawsuit says.
Yudal, who had limited speech skills, often repeated words and phrases she heard from other people, a condition called echolalia. One day her sister asked her to say, “Hello, Dad.”
Yudal’s response, recorded by her sister on her iPhone, was horrifying.
“Listen to me, a———. Settle down baby. I will kill you if you don’t calm down, – said Evdal. “I’ll kill you, a———.”
According to James Pepper, Yudall’s mother’s attorney, the obvious implication was that she was simply repeating what she had heard in Woodhaven.
“Sherrill’s account of what she heard earlier and the undisputed facts of what happened to her during that one-year period (before her death) match up,” said Pepper, who included a transcript of Yudal’s statements to her sister in the lawsuit.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health threatened to revoke Woodhaven’s license after Yudall’s death. In its review, regulators also found that the nursing home denied immediate emergency care to another resident who suffered a broken hip and failed to protect two residents from pica, an eating disorder in which someone consumes things that aren’t food, according to a government report.
The report found that “Merakei did not have an effective policy to prevent its residents from engaging in peak behavior,” Ciwatte’s lawsuit says.
Although other Woodhaven residents have struggled with pika, Pepper said he doesn’t believe Yudall inserted a large disinfectant wipe into her windpipe. She had a normal gag reflex and no history of pica, according to Woodhaven records reviewed by the Health Department.
“Nobody with a normal gag reflex could put a cleaning wipe … down the trachea,” Pepper said.
Instead, the lawsuit places the blame on someone in Woodhaven.
“Sheryl Yudall’s lack of history of peak behavior indicates that a Merakey Woodhaven employee placed a cleaning wipe in Cheryl Yudall’s trachea,” the lawsuit states.
Philadelphia police did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The state attorney general’s office, which has jurisdiction over criminal negligence in nursing homes, declined to comment.
The state Department of Health returned to Woodhaven on Sept. 6 and rescinded the nursing home’s shutdown notice, concluding that it had made “significant progress” in addressing the problems.
Woodhaven sent condolences to Civat after her daughter’s death, but did not provide information about how or why it happened, Civat said. The staff invited her to pick up Cheryl’s belongings: six packages of clothes, toys, dolls.
Siwat said she is still looking for answers.
“I need to know everything that happened. Every minute,” Sivat said. “I need to find out who found her. I need to know who did it.’