Nov 7, 2023
Julie and Bill Heiderman display a portrait of their daughter Bernice at their home in suburban Inverness in 2020. A settlement was announced Tuesday in their federal lawsuit alleging negligence. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
A suburban Chicago family won a $750,000 settlement Tuesday from the Peace Corps after their daughter died in 2018 of undiagnosed malaria while serving in East Africa.
Bernice Heiderman, 24, of Inverness, was volunteering in the island nation of Comoros, when 18 months into her tour she sought medical attention for what turned out to be classic symptoms of malaria — signs that a local Peace Corps doctor and the agency’s director of medical programs in Washington, D.C., apparently missed.
Heiderman’s mother, Julie, said the settlement “gives us the sense that the Peace Corps is taking some responsibility. That’s what we’ve wanted all along — that the Peace Corps thinks twice before it treats other families like this.”
The lawsuit, which took a complicated path from federal court to an administrative claim, said her preventable death was compounded by a bungled response from the agency that included delaying the repatriation of her remains, which arrived four days after her funeral.
It also said Peace Corps representatives suggested it was “her fault” and implied she should have asked to be tested for malaria.
It’s exceedingly hard to successfully sue the U.S. government. The family’s lawyer, Adam Dinnell, said in a statement he could find no record of any similar monetary settlement by the Peace Corps since its founding in the 1960s.
Joining the Peace Corps was a dream since high school for Heiderman. The 2016 University of Illinois Chicago graduate taught English to junior high students in the capital city of Moroni — teaching the kids to sing “Go! Cubs! Go!” in honor of her beloved World Series winning team.
She became ill around New Year’s Eve in 2017 with “headaches, dizziness, fevers and vomiting.” On Jan. 2, 2018, she visited the Peace Corps’ local doctor who said she had the flu and gave her aspirin and an antacid, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in 2020.
The doctor didn’t perform a rapid blood test for the mosquito-borne infection malaria, even though it’s common there, the suit said.
As her condition worsened to include numb limbs, diarrhea, chills, sweats, vomiting, headaches and dizziness, the doctor moved her to a local hotel room instead of to a hospital. His assistant administered IV infusions for dehydration. Within a week, she deteriorated further, finally collapsing and dying alone in a bathroom.
Later, the Peace Corps’ inspector general issued a report noting that malaria test kits and treatments were readily available and if they’d been used, Heiderman “could have made a rapid, full recovery.”
It also noted Heiderman had stopped taking antimalarial pills — a violation of Peace Corps rules — but the lawsuit alleged Peace Corps medical personnel had told her and other volunteers, incorrectly, “that malaria had been eradicated from Comoros.”
“Throughout this entire heartbreaking fiasco, the Peace Corps maintained it did nothing wrong and raised every legal defense it could to thwart our clients’ search for justice,” said Dinnell, partner at Schiffer Hicks Johnson. “Holding the agency accountable for its tragic missteps in this case can hopefully prevent situations like this from happening again.’’
The Peace Corps did not admit fault. It said in a statement it “continues to mourn the tragic loss of Volunteer Bernice Heiderman.”
“The health and safety of our Volunteers is of the utmost importance to our agency, and we remain committed to ensuring that every Volunteer has a safe and successful experience,” the agency said.
Julie Heiderman said she and her husband, Bill, and their daughter, Grace, and son, Billy, miss Bernice every day.
“The biggest thing for me is that there were just so many what ifs,” Julie Heiderman said. “I would love to know what direction Bernice would have been going right now.”
She recalls a Target run in the days before her daughter left, as Bernice lugged toothpaste, shampoo and other toiletries to the cash register. The cashier asked if she was entering the military, and she replied no, she was in the Peace Corps.
“Bernice was like, ‘It is kind of like a branch of the military, but we don’t deal with guns,’” her mom said. “That was her attitude — it was service to the country. I’m so proud that she felt that and followed through and did her part.
“And she loved it there. She really loved the people.”
Her aunt, Marilyn Olimpio, said her niece was broad-minded and loved to travel but also was family-focused and grounded.
“She was a very funny young woman with sort of an irreverent sense of humor” who also had a sense of “just wanting to be a part of the world, but also being very much a part of Chicago,” Olimpio said.
“I think she would have done really good things, whether on a quote-unquote ‘big scale’ or on a smaller scale. It would have been something extraordinary, there’s no doubt about it.”
More on the case of Bernice Heiderman
The federal government did not admit any guilt or liability in the death of the volunteer, Bernice Heiderman of Inverness, Ill., according to a legal filing on Tuesday in Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The payment is nonetheless unusual. Under federal tort law, suing the government is a complicated and difficult process. Adam Dinnell, a lawyer for the Heiderman family, said he could find no record of any similar monetary settlements by the Peace Corps, a federal agency founded in the 1960s to spread peace and American good will around the world.
In a brief written statement, the Peace Corps said it “continues to mourn the tragic loss” of Ms. Heiderman and remained “committed to ensuring that every volunteer has a safe and successful experience.” It did not directly address the settlement and said it would have no further comment “out of respect for the family.”
Ms. Heiderman, whose story was reported in detail by The New York Times in 2020, died alone in a hotel room in January 2018 after sending text messages to her family complaining that her Peace Corps doctor had been dismissive of the health issues she was experiencing, including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The Peace Corps inspector general later documented a string of problems with her care.
“Had she received timely treatment,” the inspector general concluded, “she could have made a rapid, full recovery.”
In 2018, Congress passed legislation to improve the medical care that the Peace Corps provides its volunteers. President Donald J. Trump signed it into law nine months after Ms. Heiderman’s death. The bill was prompted in part by a Times investigation in 2014 that detailed medical missteps leading up to the death of Nick Castle, a volunteer in China.
More recently, the Peace Corps has been sued by applicants whose invitations were rescinded for mental health reasons. That suit alleges that the group discriminated against the applicants by failing to offer reasonable accommodations.
In their wrongful-death lawsuit, filed in December 2020, the Heidermans made two major claims, according to their lawyer, Mr. Dinnell. First, he said, they accused the Peace Corps of providing what he described as “negligent medical care” in Africa. But they also faulted Peace Corps medical officials in Washington, who reviewed their daughter’s records, for failing to step in and take action.
Ms. Heiderman’s mother, Julie Heiderman, said in an interview that she and her husband were incensed by the way the Peace Corps treated them after their daughter’s death. She said officials had tried to blame her daughter, who had not been taking her medicine to prevent malaria. But the inspector general said the agency was to blame for failing to monitor whether volunteers were taking the drugs.
“They blamed Bernice for not asking if she could be tested for malaria, which was a kick in the teeth,” Mrs. Heiderman said. Of the settlement, she said: “It’s not what we wanted, but they are taking accountability for their mistakes. Although they’re not admitting them, it seems like the Peace Corps understands that they have treated us terribly.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg is a Washington Correspondent covering health policy. In more than two decades at The Times, she has also covered the White House, Congress and national politics. Previously, at The Los Angeles Times, she shared in two Pulitzer Prizes won by that newspaper’s Metro staff.