Rebecca Zeni spent most of her youth living her dreams: modeling in New York City, serving in a naval yard during World War II and even working at a Chicago TV station. In her final days, however, she’d die a slow, painful death at a Georgia nursing home.
Zeni passed away on June 2, 2015 at age 93, about two years after she contracted scabies during a 2013 outbreak at Shepherd Hills in LaFayette, an attorney for the family says. An autopsy found that the woman died of septicemia due to crusted scabies — parasitic mites had crawled under her skin and lived there, laying eggs throughout her body, he adds.
“At the very end, her skin was decomposing. At that point she was really, really ill from it,” Lance Lourie, an attorney for the family, tells PEOPLE of Zeni. “The lawsuit is a suit for damages for the horrible pain and suffering Ms. Zeni went through unnecessarily.”
Zeni’s daughter, Pamela Puryear, is suing PruittHealth — the for-profit company that owns the nursing home chain — and others, alleging wrongful death. After moving her mother into the home in 2010, Puryear visited the elderly woman almost every day and was concerned when her mother developed what appeared to be a rash in 2013.
Puryear did not know at the time that the home had experienced a scabies outbreak, Lourie says.
“[Zeni] had rashes and [the staff] didn’t acknowledge that it was scabies. She had rashes and the daughter kept trying to get to the bottom of what was going on,” Lourie explains. “The nursing home knew of the problem with scabies that was going on with a number of their patients and staff but they covered that up. They didn’t tell the other families about this.”
Georgia Department of Public Health officials were allegedly notified about a scabies outbreak at the facility several times (including in 2013 and 2015), but did not inspect the home, USA Today reports. The facility’s records showed unreported cases of scabies in 2014, according to the site.
“The daughter did the best she could and she was constantly reassured that everything was being taken care of,” Lourie says of Puryear. “It was horrible for Pam to see her mother in this condition and to see the suffering her mother endured at the end. She was upset and horrified.”
DPH officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.
Lourie says Puryear believed Zeni was simply suffering a rash and only learned her mother had scabies in the days before Zeni died. After filing the lawsuit, Lourie says, the grieving daughter finally discovered just how much staff members at the facility knew and didn’t tell her.
“The last six months of her life, she was in constant pain,” Mike Prieto, another lawyer for the family, told the Washington Post. “She was literally being eaten alive from inside out.”
In the days leading up to her death, patches of crust had formed on Zeni’s skin and one of her hand’s had turned nearly black.
“There was a conversation at this nursing home with a healthcare provider about being careful about touching Ms. Zeni’s hand for fear that it might fall off her body,” another attorney for the family, Stephen Chance, told USA Today.
Officials with neither PruittHealth nor Shepherd Hills nursing home immediately responded to a request for comment from PEOPLE.
In an affidavit, Debi Luther, a Florida nurse who reviewed Zeni’s case, said that nursing home staff failed to both recognize Zeni’s declining health and to prevent the spread of scabies, according to suit obtained by PEOPLE. This, Luther said, resulted in Zeni’s death.
“It’s a nightmare,” Puryear told the Post. ” There was no dignity.”
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