by Ryan Burns
Four nurses and a supervisor, who nearly six weeks ago were placed on administrative leave without cause from Eureka's St. Joseph Hospital, have been accused by hospital administrators of over-sedating patients, disregarding medication schedules and spending too much time on the Internet -- all while maintaining a "party-like atmosphere" during night shifts, according to Wesley Thornton, one of the accused nurses. A potentially criminal charge of patient abuse has also been leveled at one of the nurses, Thornton said. He denies any wrongdoing.
In a phone conversation earlier today, Thornton told the Journal that the four nurses and their non-union supervisor met separately Friday with hospital administrators, who presented them with evidence (scant, said Thornton) of unprofessional behavior. The nurses were informed that Dr. W. Scott Sageman was having trouble waking patients during the day, leading him to suspect they were being over-sedated, Thornton said.
St. Joseph spokesperson Courtney Hunt-Munther sent the following statement via e-mail:
We are continuing with a thorough internal review of this matter and will not discuss or share information about any personnel matters that are considered to be confidential. Out of respect for our employees and the sensitive issues involved, we are not able to provide any further specifics at this time.
"The charge," Thornton explained, "was that we would over-sedate patients at night so we could sleep. They told us, 'Since you guys have been gone there's been a 45 percent decrease in narcotic delivery to the patients.' That was their standard line," he said. "I don't have a retort other than [asking], 'Are the patients in pain?'"
Another of the four nurses was accused of administering medication too late in her shift or not at all, then attempting to cover her tracks in the inventory department and the computer system, Thornton said. However, he blames the hospital's medication administrative software, which he believes can create misperceptions of what actually happens during a shift.
Thornton claims that the charges of spending too much time on the Internet and maintaining a "party-like atmosphere" are unfounded and reflect a lack of understanding about the night shift. "Part of the reason we get paid more is to be up all night," Thornton said. "There is a lot of slack time. We read books, play games, watch the Internet, go check eBay."
Administrators presented reams of data collected from servers that chronicled their Internet usage, he said, though he insists none of these activities jeopardized the health of patients in the ICU.
This particular night crew was known for bringing in food and playing music, with two nurses regularly strumming their guitars, Thornton admitted. "We'll make sure patients around there are sedated," he added. "It's actually very soothing."
Medications used in the ICU include the sedatives Diprivan and Versed (Midazolam) as well as the pain reliever Morphine -- "Michael Jackson medications," as Thornton called them. He could provide no details on the charge of patient abuse, though he believes the accusation has no validity.
The nurses were initially placed on unpaid investigative suspension, but wages for the duration of the leave were reinstated after a union rep intervened. Thornton said he and the other nurses were expecting to be called into the hospital again today to discuss "the next step in the process."
Thornton believes the accusations are merely retribution for not staying in line. "It doesn't seem like there's any proof," he said. "There's no dead bodies. We do good patient care. ... The problem is these nurses speak their mind about policies they don't agree with. These nurses don't toe the line."
Reached Monday by e-mail, District Attorney Paul Gallegos said he was not aware of any investigation into these claims. "I would take such allegations, if they were supported by sufficient evidence, very seriously," he responded. "I hope that hospital does too."