Peace Corps agrees to pay $750,000 to family of volunteer who died after doctors misdiagnosed her malaria, law firm says


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 the agency’s doctors misdiagnosed a case of malaria, a law firm announced Tuesday.

Bernice Heiderman of Inverness, Illinois, died in January 2018 on the island nation of Comoros after texting her mother that the local Peace Corps doctor wasn’t taking seriously her complaints of dizziness, nausea, fever and fatigue, said Adam Dinnell, a partner at the Houston-based law firm of Schiffer Hicks Johnson PLLC.

  Bernice Heiderman

National Peace Corps Association

The doctor told her to drink water and take aspirin, said Dinnell, whose firm filed a federal lawsuit for damages in Chicago on behalf of the Heiderman family.

The woman’s mother, Julie Heiderman, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview the family feels that with the settlement, the Peace Corps has taken some accountability for her daughter’s death and realized it had treated the family “horrifically.”

The agency speaks of its “sophisticated medical care” for volunteers when in fact “they hired someone who didn’t recognize malaria,” she said.

“The Peace Corps was awful,” she said, refusing to speak to the family without its attorney being present and not returning the body to the family until days after extended family had gathered in Illinois for the funeral.

Her daughter had wanted to join the Peace Corps since the time she was in junior high, Heiderman said.

“She felt very patriotic about serving her country in the way she chose,” the mother said.

The Peace Corps issued a statement saying it “continues to mourn the tragic loss of Volunteer Bernice Heiderman.”

“She was a remarkable Volunteer who was admired by her students and community in Comoros. . . . 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 statement said.

Comoros is in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and the island nation of Madagascar.

A post-mortem test revealed Bernice Heiderman died of malaria, Dinnell said. An investigation by the Peace Corps’ inspector general concluded the doctor and the agency’s head medical officer in Washington ignored directives and failed to follow standard protocols, such as ordering a simple blood test that would have detected malaria, which is easily treatable with medication, he said.

The inspector general’s review also found that Heiderman had not been following her required malaria suppression medication regime for several months prior to her death.

Malaria is most common in tropical climates, putting nearly half the global population at risk, according to the World Health Organization. WHO estimates there were about 247 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2021, and 691,000 deaths. The vast majority of cases and deaths occurred in Africa.

According to a 2018 statement by the Peace Corps after her death,  Heiderman was an education volunteer in Comoros, teaching English at the public junior high school in the community of Salimani, on the island of Grande Comore. She also started a Junior Explorer’s Club and worked to secure funds to conduct field trips to the National Museum of Comoros, a botanical garden and other historical sites on the island, the Peace Corps said.

According to the National Peace Corps Association, Heiderman was one of 30 volunteers who died during service over the past decade before her death.

“If we’re to honor the work she was doing, we must, for starters, renew a commitment to ensure that the Peace Corps does better when addressing the health needs of volunteers — particularly when it comes to the treatment of known, familiar diseases with remedies,” National Peace Corps Association President Glenn Blumhorst wrote.


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