- The Peace Corps has agreed to pay $750,000 to the family of a volunteer who died in East Africa after being misdiagnosed with malaria.
- The volunteer, Bernice Heiderman, died after her complaints were not taken seriously by the local Peace Corps doctor.
- The settlement shows the Peace Corps has recognized its mistreatment of the family and highlights the need for improved medical care within the organization.
The Peace Corps has agreed to pay $750,000 to the family of a 24-year-old volunteer from Illinois who died in 2018 in East Africa after being misdiagnosed with malaria. The volunteer, Bernice Heiderman, died on the island nation of Comoros after her complaints of dizziness, nausea, fever, and fatigue were not taken seriously by the local Peace Corps doctor. The family filed a federal lawsuit for damages, and the settlement shows that the Peace Corps has taken some accountability for her death.
According to the family’s attorney, the doctor instructed Bernice to drink water and take aspirin. The woman’s mother, Julie Heiderman, stated that the settlement signifies that the Peace Corps has recognized its mistreatment of the family. She criticized the agency for hiring a doctor who failed to recognize malaria despite their claims of providing sophisticated medical care for volunteers.
Julie Heiderman also described the Peace Corps as “awful,” citing their refusal to speak with the family without their attorney present and the delay in returning Bernice’s body for the funeral. She revealed that her daughter had wanted to join the Peace Corps since junior high school because she felt patriotic about serving her country in that way.
The Peace Corps expressed its grief over Bernice Heiderman’s death and referred to her as a remarkable volunteer who was admired by her students and community in Comoros. The agency emphasized its commitment to the health and safety of volunteers.
An investigation by the Peace Corps’ inspector general revealed that the doctor and the agency’s head medical officer in Washington ignored directives and failed to follow protocols, including ordering a blood test that could have detected malaria. A post-mortem test confirmed that Bernice died of malaria. The inspector general’s review also found that she had not been following her required malaria suppression medication regime prior to her death.
Malaria is most common in tropical climates and poses a significant risk to almost half of the global population. The World Health Organization reported approximately 247 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2021, with the majority of cases and deaths occurring in Africa.
According to the Peace Corps, Bernice Heiderman was an education volunteer in Comoros, teaching English at a public junior high school and starting a Junior Explorer’s Club. She also worked to secure funds for field trips to various historical sites on the island.
Bernice Heiderman’s death is not an isolated incident, as the National Peace Corps Association reveals that she was one of 30 volunteers who died during service over the past decade. The association’s president emphasized the need for the Peace Corps to improve its handling of volunteers’ health needs, particularly in treating known diseases like malaria.
Overall, the Peace Corps settlement with the Heiderman family signifies the agency’s acknowledgment of its mismanagement and the mistreatment of Bernice, who died as a result of a misdiagnosis. It highlights the importance of prioritizing the health and safety of volunteers and improving medical care within the Peace Corps.