CONWAY, AR–Martha Deaver’s office sits at the end of a gallery of photographs of her grandchildren on the second floor of a neat and cozy home nestled in a residential neighborhood in Conway, Arkansas.

Against one wall are yellow signs that look like oversized place mats with green letters urging people to “protect the rights of nursing home residents” that have appeared at annual rallies at the state capitol for the past dozen years.  Elsewhere in the room stands a small wooden elephant, trunk raised as if ready to emit a roar.  Near the entrance is a framed puzzle put together by a nursing home resident of a young woman with dark eyeshadow, a rose dangling from her mouth.

Deaver’s sturdy desk contains pictures of her receiving an award from the nation’s largest nursing homes advocacy group and shaking hands with then-FBI director Robert Muller-reminders of the national recognition she has earned in the past 10 years.

It is at the desk that Deaver has, for decades, requested inspection reports from government officials, fielded calls from whistleblower employees, counseled family members, cajoled lawyers, hectored legislators, said “Let me say this” countless times, and fought with every fiber of her being to educate the public and protect nursing home residents who often literally have no voice.  

But if the desk is the office’s nerve center, its emotional heart is a stand-alone, framed black and white portrait of Helen Steger, Deaver’s mother.

In the image Steger, a registered nurse, the mother of four daughters and the wife of an Air Force Colonel who fought more than 50 missions in World War II, is wearing a white blouse with a white/pink flower pinned to it.  A single row of pearls is partially visible around her neck.

Standing in front of a brick wall about a year before she entered a nursing home, the dark-haired Steger projects elegance, strength  and an aura of sadness.  The gaze in her brown eyes is determined and direct, but not joyful.  Her lips are not parted.

Deaver takes a button with a smaller version of that photograph with her wherever she goes.  

She wears it, she says, as a badge of honor.  

The memories of the suffering her mother and husband’s mother endured at a nursing home, and the facility’s placing a restraining order on Deaver and other family members have combined with her religious foundation to give her a palpable ferocity, seemingly boundless energy and an almost limitless capacity to absorb other people’s pain and keep right on fighting on many levels against an industry that she says is committing daily acts of harm against the nation’s most vulnerable residents.  

“Martha Deaver is on a mission,” said Bob Edwards, a nursing home plaintiff lawyer in Little Rock who nominated Deaver for a national award in 2005.  “She is determined to make sure every single resident in every nursing home receives decent, competent care, and she will not rest until she has achieved her goal.”  

“She is a fierce warrior against the rampant neglect and abuse that occurs in nursing homes that she sees daily and which she only knows too well from her own personal experience,” Edwards added.

Painful Personal Experience

Deaver first became involved in nursing home advocacy in the late 80s when her grandmother was a resident of an Arkansas nursing home, she said.

Fury at the abuse experienced first by her mother-in-law, and then her mother, propelled her to greater levels of involvement.   

In a piece she wrote for a support group called, “Who will stop the massacres?”, Deaver wrote that her mother-in-law once was found in bed with a washrag shoved in her rectum in order to stop her from having bowel movements.  

Another time she had a fist-sized bruise in the middle of her chest.

Her mother-in-law was left unattended in her wheelchair for five hours, even though the doctor’s order stated that she should be in her wheelchair no more than 30 minutes, Deaver wrote.  

The neglect caused her mother-in-law to have a level four bedsore in which the lesion went all the way to the bone, according to Deaver.

Her mother suffered, too.

Despite the presence of a red alert strip on the front on her chart to indicate that she was seriously allergic to a drug, she was given the drug anyway, Deaver said.  

Her mother’s reaction was so severe that she spent two weeks in intensive care, where she nearly died.

On the other hand, Deaver wrote that her mother’s narcotics were found missing many times.  The facility was aware that the absence was attributed to one nurse, but failed to sufficiently investigate the matter.  

One day, Deaver visited her mother and discovered her in bed, blood flowing from her ear.

Steger’s eardrum had been punctured, Deaver said.

In a 2006 Ladies Home Journal article titled, “It Broke My Heart I Couldn’t Protect My Mom”, Deaver said the lack of medication contributed to her mother’s having devastating seizures.  

When the facility did not respond to her raising the issue with them, she filed a complaint with the state, the article said. The state not only found in Deaver’s favor, it discovered that the home had no system of documentation in place to ensure that residents got the medications they needed. The state agency fined the facility several thousand dollars.  Home administrators and attorneys declined to comment for the article.

The nursing home responded by filing a successful restraining order against Deaver, her husband Ronny and their grown son Bryan, the article said.

This meant that Deaver and her family could no longer visit Steger as her health deteriorated.

Deaver said she and the family attempted to move her mother to another facility, but were unable to gain admission for Steger.

Several months later, she went into respiratory failure and was taken to a hospital.  A doctor who saw Steger told Dever that her mother had no choice of recovery, and that the respiratory failure was caused by having laid in her vomit for hours, Deaver said.

Steger lingered on life support for most of the nearly two months before her death in March 2001, according to the magazine.  

Her mother’s guardian, Deaver made the decision to disconnect her mother from life support.

Steger died just two days before the court hearing to respond to Deaver’s contesting the restraining order, she said.

She postponed her mother’s funeral so that the hearing could take place.  

Although Deaver won in court, the agony her mother experienced during the last months of her life still fuels her.

Advocacy Activities

As president of Arkansas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents, a group she first joined in 1998 and which she has headed since 2008, she works on local, state and national levels.

Staple activities include the annual residents rights rally, monthly meetings and the distribution 10 times per year of a newsletter sent to hundreds of people.  A recent issue contained articles about changes in the five-star rating system used to evaluate nursing homes, 10 myths about falls and advice about how to start a family council.

In addition to fielding calls from families and securing facilities’ violation records, Deaver also shares information with law enforcement agencies when she deems it appropriate.  Her actions have contributed to administrators’ getting fired, homes being fined and the longest-standing family council in the state at Cumberland Health and Rehabilitation Center in Little Rock being established and maintained.  

Cumberland council member Paulette Blevins said Deaver’s assistance has been invaluable.

“I don’t know what we would do without Martha,” she said.

Deaver has been happily married for more than 40 years to Ronny, whom she describes as a “big old country boy”.  

She is not reachable in the evenings when her granddaughter, a high school senior, has a game or an event.

Don’t even think of trying to contact her on Friday nights during football season.

Yet often, after the game has ended and she has returned home with her beloved, the phone in Martha Deaver’s office will ring.

She will answer the call.

She will listen to the pained and panicked voice on the other end of the line.

And, as she always done and as she will do until she is no longer able, near the photograph of the woman who gave her life and whose anguish she was not able to prevent, Martha Deaver will act.

“It’s a gift from G-d and I am grateful,” she says.  “I have the most horrific cases back to back. At the end of the day, I’m so overwhelmingly grateful they found me.”

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is a lecturer in the Communication and Media Innovation department at Columbia College Chicago. His participation in the story is supported by a Faculty Development Grant from the college.

Click here to read Kelly Lowenstein’s three-part series about nursing homes for the Center for Public Integrity.