true crime

After doctors saved her life, Alyssa accused the hospital of holding her against her will.

After months in one of the world’s top hospitals, the family of Alyssa Gilderhus helped her escape.

In the ordeal captured on video, Alyssa’s stepfather helped her out of her wheelchair and into a car, her mother at the wheel ready to take off.

Mayo Clinic staff were running towards them. One grabbed Alyssa’s arm.

They then drove quickly away from the hospital that first saved Alyssa’s life, then allegedly held her captive.

The family told CNN journalists Elizabeth Cohen and John Bonifield their story.

Christmas Day, 2016.

As CNN reports, the 18-year-old had just opened up her first Christmas present, a pair of cowboy boots, before going to the bathroom.

Her parents, mother Amber Engebretson and stepfather Duane Engebretson heard her scream. They found her curled up on the bathroom floor, vomiting. Her left side was weak and she couldn’t hear out of her left ear.

At a local hospital, doctors determined that she’d had a ruptured brain aneurysm. With her life on the line, doctors drilled a hole into her skull to relieve the pressure on her brain.

Later that day she was transferred to world-renowned medical centre the Mayo Clinic, located 135 kilometres away in Rochester, Minnesota.

Doctors there gave her a “grim” two per cent chance of survival, and after four brain surgeries over the next month, Alyssa beat the odds and was transferred from the neurology unit to Mayo’s rehabilitation centre.

Isolation in rehab.

It was there that tensions between Alyssa’s family and clinic staff began to flare.

On February 22, 2017, Alyssa’s mother Amber was kicked out of Mayo after a disagreement with medical staff. Amber told CNN a doctor told her she was not allowed to participate in Alyssa’s care and was banned from stepping foot on Mayo property.

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Despite repeated requests from both Alyssa and her mother to transfer her to a different hospital, Mayo refused to let her leave.

In a Facebook post, Amber wrote that her daughter was “basically a prisoner of Mayo”.

CNN reports that Alyssa was examined by a psychiatrist who found she “lacked the capacity to make her own medical decisions”.

On February 27, Mayo staffers found out that Alyssa had been recording a video for her mother and took away her phone, laptop and tablet. They then refused to let visitors bring similar devices into her room and stopped allowing visitors to stay overnight.

The escape plan.

A day later on February 28, her stepfather Duane was sitting in Alyssa’s room when he had an idea.

Alyssa’s Grandma Betty was 80 years old. She was fragile, having just had knee surgery. Duane told nurses Grandma Betty was coming to visit, but she was unable to make it upstairs to Alyssa’s room, so Alyssa would need to go down to see her.

At 4pm, with his nine-year-old daughter secretly filming, Duane wheeled Alyssa down to see Grandma Betty in the hospital car park.

But Grandma Betty wasn’t there. The car’s front seat was empty. The video showed Amber in the driver’s seat.

“Alyssa, we’re going to go home honey,” she said to her daughter.

Two women in scrubs ran towards them as Duane bundled Alyssa into the car. As one grabbed Alyssa’s arm, Duane told her to get her hands off his daughter.

Once in the car, Duane yelled at his wife to drive: “Get out of here Amber. Go, go, go, go, go, go!”.

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Alyssa Gilderhus
Alyssa's stepfather Duane Engebretson helped her into the car before they made their getaway. Image: CNN.

'Patient abduction'.

At 4.28pm a Rochester Police dispatcher received a call from the Mayo Clinic security, "We have a patient abduction," the caller said.

An officer arrived at the hospital 20 minutes later and was confused by the situation.

A Mayo social worker told him that Alyssa was unable to make decisions for herself, and that her mother couldn't care for her as Amber had mental health issues. Amber has said she has no history of mental illness.

Police asked who, if Alyssa couldn't make decisions for herself, was making decisions on her behalf while she was in hospital? Mayo replied that they had been consulting directly with the patient.

Rochester Police Department captain of investigations, John Sherwin, told CNN it became clear to investigators that Alyssa was capable of making decisions about her own care, including the decision to leave the hospital.

"There was no abduction," he concluded.

On the run.

Despite this, the police were still concerned about Alyssa's health.

Mayo sent the police an order for a 72-hour hold, which allowed police to admit someone to a hospital emergency room if they're a danger to themselves, even if this was against their will. But first, they needed to find Alyssa.

Minnesota has a high volume of Mayo facilities, so Alyssa's family wanted to go somewhere where she wouldn't be admitted to another Mayo hospital.

They drove west, and less than 12 hours after escaping Mayo, Alyssa and her family arrived at Sanford Medical Centre in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The Sanford doctors disagreed with Mayo's findings, and ruled that Alyssa did in fact have the mental capacity to make her own medical decisions, and sign her own consent forms.

The family was free to go home.

Alyssa Gilderhus
A few months after she left Mayo Clinic, Alyssa, pictured with her mother Amber, was voted prom queen. Image: Facebook.

Mayo Clinic responds.

Mayo Clinic has disputed CNN's version of events.

In a statement, Mayo said their main focus was on the health and wellbeing of the patient.

"Following a thorough and careful review of the care in question, we have determined that the version of events provided by certain patient family members to CNN are not supported by the facts nor do they track with the direct observations of numerous other providers on the patient’s care team," the statement said.

"Our internal review determined that the care team’s actions were true to Mayo Clinic’s primary value that the patient’s needs come first."

On the same day as CNN broke Alyssa's story, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester was named as the U.S News and World Report's Best Hospital for the third year in a row.

Meanwhile Alyssa, now 20, has thrived since the ordeal. She graduated high school, was voted her school's prom queen and is busy preparing for her first year at college.

Recalling her escape, Alyssa told CNN it was like "the biggest weight" being lifted off her shoulders.

To read the full two-part CNN investigation, by Elizabeth Cohen and John Bonifield, click here.

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