Are West Texas nurses criminals or health advocates? (Part 2)

Austin American-Statesman, February 1, 2010

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Remember the two West Texas nurses who were not only fired from their jobs but also indicted on third-degree felony charges for doing what they thought was right?

To me, there appears to be so much wrong here — arrogance, vindictiveness, downright good-ol’-boy idiocy — that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Last April, Vickilyn Galle and Anne Mitchell complained to the Texas Medical Board that Dr. Rolando Arafiles improperly encouraged patients in the hospital emergency department and in the rural health clinic to buy his own herbal “medicines.”

The nurses, who practiced at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, also thought it improper for him to attempt to take hospital supplies to perform a procedure at a patient’s home. (The hospital chief of staff stopped him.)

Galle and Mitchell, both in their 50s and longtime members of the American Nurses Association/Texas Nurses Association, went up the chain of command at the 25-bed hospital and got nowhere with their complaints. So they anonymously turned the doctor into the Texas Medical Board, using the medical record numbers of six hospital patients, not their names.

When the medical board notified the physician that he was under investigation for mistreatment and poor quality of care, he filed a harassment complaint with the Winkler County Sheriff’s Department.

To find out who made the anonymous complaint, the sheriff industriously interviewed all patients whose medical record case numbers were listed in the report and asked the hospital to identify who would have had access to the patient records in question. The sheriff narrowed the potential complainants to the two nurses. He got a search warrant to seize their work computers and found a copy of the letter to the medical board on one of them.

The nurses were fired by the hospitals and charged by the district attorney’s office with “misuse of official information,” a third-degree felony that carries a potential of two to 10 years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of $10,000.

Their lawyers unsuccessfully sought to have the charges dismissed at a pretrial hearing in August. A second pretrial hearing in October resulted in a change of venue from Kermit (population 7,000) to Andrews (population 13,000), the county seat of adjacent Andrews County.

Meanwhile, in August, the nurses filed a civil lawsuit in federal district court against the hospital administrator, sheriff, county and district attorneys and physician (all males) as well as the hospital and the county. They charged violation of their constitutional right to free speech and due process, conspiring to intimidate and threaten the plaintiffs from filing any civil action and for violating the Texas whistleblower law.

The federal court ordered mediation, which took place in December and failed. The nurses’ criminal trial begins Feb. 8.

In a third pretrial hearing last month, the court denied a request by prosecutors to try the nurses separately and reminded the state of its unfulfilled obligation to turn over contact information of its witnesses. Interestingly, a New York Times reporter and photographer were present.

The public outrage needle jerked into the red zone as the nurses got media coverage and widespread support. The Texas Nurses Association created a legal defense fund for the Winkler County nurses (accessible on its Web site), and the first donation was from a staff nurse practicing in New York who wrote out a check for $500 from her personal account.

Since August, more than $40,000 has been donated by 450 individual nurses from 35 states and 25 nurse organizations from eight states.

Galle and Mitchell exercised a basic tenet of the professional nurses’ code of ethics — the duty to advocate for the health and safety of their patients. On Feb. 8, state as well as national attention will be focused on the squat, Depression-era Andrews County courthouse where the nurses will learn their fate.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident and retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews, writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.