‘Death doula’ accused of taking assets of woman suffering from foot pain before death
Caregiver subject of wrongful death suit
WAILUKU — A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against a “death doula” who received a house and other assets from a 57-year-old Kihei woman who was suffering from chronic foot pain before her death.
Heather Parsons befriended the woman, became her primary caregiver, and “in a matter of months orchestrated the victim changing all of her estate planning documents, getting the victim to convey all of her assets to the death doula, and starving, dehydrating and drugging the victim to death,” according to the complaint filed last month in 2nd Circuit Court.
It was filed on behalf of Michael L. Adams of Houston, Texas, and Jasmine Lee of Grover Beach, Calif., who are personal representatives of the estate of their mother, Fay Block.
She hadn’t been diagnosed with a terminal illness when she died at home April 24, 2017, under hospice care with Parsons present, according to the complaint. None of Block’s five children were with her when she died.
A death doula, also known as a death midwife, is described as a person who assists in the dying process.
“This is a pretty significant case for the community because I don’t think too many people know that things like this happen,” said Honolulu attorney Lyle Hosoda, who is representing Block’s children and her estate, along with Honolulu attorney Addison Bonner and Wailuku attorney Lauren Akitake. “It’s something the community should be aware of.
“What makes this wrong is that she ended up with all of the assets,” Hosoda said, referring to Parsons. “If the decedent truly was in so much pain that she didn’t have contact with family members and it was her wish to pass on, I think it would be another case. But in a situation like this where the person ends up with all the assets after a limited relationship, a couple of months, there’s just something wrong.
“If you take our point of view, this whole thing was orchestrated.”
Wailuku attorney Anthony Ranken, who represents Parsons, disputed facts in the complaint, including the description of the relationship between Parsons and Block.
He said Parsons met Block in October 2015 and spoke to her by phone and in person throughout the last half of 2016 and early 2017. Block paid for Parsons to return to Maui in February 2017, Ranken said. He said she became Block’s caregiver because no one else would agree to do it.
“My client was just following the wishes of the woman, just helping her implement her own wishes and providing her solace and support,” Ranken said. “She didn’t drug her. She just followed the hospice plan for pain relief.”
In addition to Parsons, who is also known as Heather Neeraja Parsons and Neeraja Parsons, the lawsuit names as defendants her husband, Rob Parsons; Dr. Paul Kaiwi Jr. and Islands Hospice Inc.
Kaiwi, who wasn’t one of Block’s primary care physicians, certified Block’s eligibility for hospice care, according to the complaint. It alleges that Islands Hospice didn’t review Block’s medical history or interview her family members before assisting in her death, in part by providing prescriptions for the medicine that was used to cause Block’s death.
Kaiwi and Islands Hospice didn’t respond to phone calls last week seeking comment on the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, Heather Parsons came into contact with Block in about January 2017 when Block “was in a vulnerable condition.” She was receiving medical treatment after experiencing chronic pain in her left foot since about mid-2013, according to the complaint.
Parsons began spending more time with Block and slept in the same bed with her at her Kihei Bay Surf condominium, the complaint says.
On Feb. 24, 2017, Parsons replaced family members and became the sole beneficiary of Block’s estate and trust in the first amendment to Block’s revocable living trust that had been drafted in 2016, the complaint says.
On March 7, 2017, Block transferred ownership of her house on Hoalike Street in Kihei to Parsons for $10, according to the complaint.
In a declaration filed as part of probate proceedings, a friend of more than 20 years who saw Block once or twice a week said she never mentioned Parsons before late January or early February 2017 when Parsons began visiting Block at her condominium.
In February 2017, “Fay offered to gift me the Hoalike property,” the friend said in his declaration. “After consulting a trusted friend, I declined the offer because I was concerned about Fay’s state of mind, particularly regarding ending her life.”
The declaration said that when the friend visited Block on April 13, 2017, Parsons “explained that Fay had decided to go through with the process of dying by dehydration with the help of hospice.”
When the friend suggested calling Block’s children, “I was told by Parsons not to call them as those were Fay’s wishes,” according to the declaration.
In Block’s 2016 estate planning documents, the house was to be left to Block’s cousin and her condominium was to be left to another son.
On March 31, 2017, escrow closed on a townhouse that Block owned in Las Vegas, and she received a wire transfer of the sale proceeds to her bank account, which she assigned to Parsons, according to the complaint.
It alleges that Heather and Rob Parsons developed a plan, which included involving Kaiwi and Islands Hospice, to take all of Block’s assets and to conceal her death from her family. Rob Parsons was Maui County environmental coordinator for 12 years in former Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration.
Plans had been made to cremate Block and to have a burial at sea before her family learned about her death, according to the complaint.
The day Block died, her daughter Lee called police and requested a welfare check on her mother. When a police officer arrived at the condo and told Heather Parsons to leave, “she protested and claimed she owned the condo,” according to the complaint.
It alleges that on her way out, Parsons, aided by her husband, took items from the condo.
Three days later, Block’s son Adams was granted emergency court relief to stop the cremation of Block’s body and to freeze her assets, including her house, condominium and bank account.
Ranken said Heather Parsons “declined the inheritance, leaving Fay’s estate instead to Fay’s children even though Fay had specifically disinherited them in each of her wills going back to before she met Heather, and was estranged from each of her children.”
In a declaration filed in court in probate and trust proceedings, Adams said, “My mother and I had a good relationship.”
He spoke with her about once a month in phone calls lasting more than an hour each, according to the declaration. About a month before her death, Block asked if Adams had bought a ticket to visit her on Maui, his declaration says.
According to a petition filed in probate proceedings, Parsons resigned as successor trustee on Feb. 14, 2018, during the Maui Police Department’s second-degree murder investigation into Block’s death. Her resignation was notarized in Monterey, Calif.
While disclaiming her interest in assets, including Block’s condominium and bank account, that were covered in Block’s will and trust, Parsons petitioned the court for possession of Block’s house and its rental proceeds, arguing the property was in her name and wasn’t part of Block’s estate or trust.
An order dated March 6, 2019, signed by 2nd Circuit Judge Peter Cahill, granted Parsons’ petition, giving her possession of the three-bedroom house assessed at $518,000 and more than $15,000 in its rental proceeds, according to court documents. Parsons is listed as the owner of the house in county property tax records.
According to the lawsuit, an autopsy done Oct. 27, 2017, determined that Block died of malnutrition and had “acute bronchopneumonia and mixed drug toxicity (fentanyl, gabapentin, morphine, lorazepam and oxymorphone)” in her system when she died.
MPD reclassified the case from a closed attended death to a second-degree murder investigation and, after concluding its investigation, sent its report to the county prosecutor’s office, according to the complaint.
Hosoda said he believes the prosecutor’s office is “heavily investigating” the case.
Contacted last week, the Maui County prosecutor’s office said it was unable to comment on the case at this time.
Ranken said he had spoken to former Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim about the case “on several occasions.”
“I agreed to an informal sharing of information because I don’t think there’s any criminal aspect to it,” Ranken said.
He said Block “was a vivacious and strong-willed Maui resident who loved life up until she was overcome by a debilitating illness.”
“Her medical condition caused her excruciating pain whenever she walked, moved or put pressure on her foot,” Ranken said. “Her pain got worse and worse for years, until she told her doctor, ‘I have no quality of life.’ ”
He said Parsons had discouraged Block from her decision to end her life by stopping eating and drinking.
Ranken referred to the “Our Care, Our Choice Act” that took effect this year, allowing mentally competent adults who have a terminal illness with less than six months to live to request prescription medication to end their lives.
“The law recognizes that terminally ill people have the right to choose the method and timing of their death, under appropriate medical supervision,” Ranken said. “That is exactly what Fay Block did.”
Under the law, which took effect more than a year and a half after Block’s death, patients must get confirmation from two health care providers of their diagnoses and a determination from a counselor that they are capable and not suffering from any conditions that could impair their judgment.
Patients also must submit two oral requests and a written request before obtaining the prescription. They can rescind their request at any time and are not obligated to use the medication.
The lawsuit says that when hospice became involved, Block “was already too weak and vulnerable to have the mental capacity to make her own life decisions.”
According to Ranken, a doctor’s referral of Block to hospice care noted: “Other terminal diagnosis: plantar fascia formatosis, unilateral primary osteoarthritis.”
The lawsuit says that, other than her chronic left foot pain, Block was in overall good health. “She did not have any other major health problems and was not diagnosed with a terminal illness,” according to the complaint.
In her LinkedIn profile, Parsons describes herself as a certified death midwife and home funeral director.
Since 2004, “she has been primary caregiver, caretaker, or helped in some way with more than two dozen individuals dealing with severe illness and/or end-of-life care,” Ranken said.
He said Parsons “derives her living from donations, from people such as Fay that she helps.”
“While the value of the gifts she received from Fay were beyond any expectations she had ever had, nevertheless they came because she had earned Fay’s gratitude as expressed in those gifts,” Ranken said.
“Measured in terms of Fay’s means, the larger amount does not mean that the gift was ‘undue,’ any more than a small donation from another client who could afford no more than that would be ‘undue.’ ”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified general, special and punitive damages, as well as the return of Block’s house to her estate.
The complaint includes “an urgent warning to protect yourselves and your loved ones, especially if they are elderly and/or vulnerable in any way, from individuals holding themselves out as ‘death doulas’ or ‘death midwives’ who offer to end a life for a financial donation.”
“These death doulas, and their supporters, prey on vulnerable adults, getting them to turn over all of their assets, such as houses, condos and bank accounts, and then attempt to have the vulnerable adult’s body cremated to destroy evidence of how they died,” according to the complaint. “These death doulas or midwives have no professional doctor’s or nurse’s licenses and are unregulated by any state agency.
“These death doulas and their supporters then proclaim their selflessness, altruism, and self-sacrifice, while blaming the victim’s family. “
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.