A traveling nurse says she was fired from PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center for reporting workplace safety and patient care concerns.
State and federal labor investigators are looking into complaints that the hospital retaliated against the nurse after she’d raised concerns that some COVID-19 patients weren’t being properly monitored.
Registered nurse Marian Weber arrived in Ketchikan from Louisiana in April. As a wave of COVID-19 cases hit the community in July and August, the city-owned hospital started taking in patients from long-term care facilities in the area. In an interview, Weber said some were critically ill.
“We had one patient that was intubated, and we had one that required continuous BiPAP (a type of ventilator), and these are ICU-level … patients,” she said.
But Weber said they weren’t placed in the intensive care unit — even though there were rooms available in the ICU that she said were equipped to handle COVID-19 patients.
Instead, she said, they were placed with the rest of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients in a section of the medical-surgical unit. And that was a problem, she said, because it meant critically ill patients couldn’t be monitored effectively from outside their rooms.
“Typically, your ICU units, the rooms are comprised of glass doors that allow you to have eyes-on monitoring,” she said.
She said there’s also a central monitoring system in the ICU that allows caregivers to track patients’ vital signs and rings alarms when something is wrong.
But in Ketchikan’s medical-surgical unit, room doors are opaque, making it difficult to see in, and there isn’t an ICU-level monitoring system, Weber said.
“So we had no way to effectively monitor our patients on the level that is required,” she said. “And anything can go wrong with these patients.”
Weber said PeaceHealth suggested placing a nurse in the room to monitor the patient.
“Inside the room with the COVID-19 patient undergoing aerosolized particle procedures for 12 hours,” she said.
Weber said she worried that was unsafe because of prolonged exposure to the coronavirus. She says brought it up to her manager. Then, the next day, she says she was instructed to call a hospital administrator.
“And I did,” she said. “And she responded with, ‘I need you to understand the verbiage I’m about to use’ — these are her words — ‘and share it with your traveling co workers. You are not staff. You are guests here, and you can leave at any time. There is a long line of travelers waiting to take your job.'”
She said she was shocked.
“I asked her to tread very carefully in our conversation, because it sounded like when I voiced concerns about staff and patient safety, Sherry (Dunlay) was responding by threatening my position,” she said. “So when I explained that concern to her, she responded to me, ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave.'”
She said she filed an internal ethics complaint on the hospital’s anonymous tip line later that day.
But four days later — on August 24 — she was fired. That was a week after she’d signed a four-month extension.
“If they’re not happy with your work, they’re not going to extend you, even at times when they’re short staffed,” she said. She said hospital officials had recently thanked her for extending her contract during a “Caregiver Celebration Day” celebration.
Weber said it’s tough to see her firing as anything but retaliation. And she’s worried it will make others less likely to report their concerns.
“When a system retaliates, like PeaceHealth Ketchikan did, against a nurse for voicing safety concerns, it creates a chilling effect in that other nurses and health care staff will not speak out in fear of retaliation from administration,” she said. “And this can result in harm or death of patients and/or staff.”
The state’s nursing union says employees should be able to raise safety concerns without fear of reprisals.
“Our working conditions are our patients’ healing conditions. A safety risk to an employee is a safety risk to you or your loved one,” Alaska Nurses Association Programs Director Andrea Nutty said in a statement.
PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center declined to comment on any of Weber’s concerns. In a prepared statement, a spokesperson says the hospital’s protocol for caring for COVID-19 patients “has followed and continues to follow state and federal guidelines.” The spokesperson says patient and caregiver safety remains the hospital’s top priority and that the hospital takes all reported concerns seriously.
Weber has filed a complaint with state and federal workplace safety authorities about her firing. She’s asked the National Labor Relations Board to consider this a whistleblower case. Both complaints are in early stages of the process.