West Texas Story has Sleaze, Drama — Sadly, It’s Real

Austin American-Statesman, June 7, 2011

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Despite the legal vindication, the nurses have lost their careers, half of their incomes and their quality of life. Why? For doing the right thing to protect patients.

We’ve seen the beginning of the 
Winkler County whistle-blowing nurses movie so many times, but it still doesn’t have an ending.

It has an all-star cast. Winkler County nurses Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle; town doctor Rolando G. Arafiles Jr.; hospital administrator Stan Wiley; former Winkler County Sheriff Robert L. Roberts; Winkler County Attorney Scott M. Tidwell; Attorney General Greg Abbott; state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; and state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin.

Anne Mitchell, foreground, and Vickilyn Galle

A good setting: A dusty, isolated West Texas town, Kermit in Winkler County. Thick good-ol’-boy culture. Squat courthouse. Twenty-five bed community hospital.

Plot: It’s 2007, and the small town is desperate for a doctor. Arafiles rides into town. He’s an affable guy hired despite the red flag of a stipulation on his Texas medical license. The town sheriff quickly befriends the doctor, and they become golfing buddies.

According to published reports, the doctor’s colleagues become increasingly uncomfortable with his standards of practice. The doctor sells a dubious nutrition supplement called Zrii to his patients as a sideline, following up with emails. They question his examining and billing for genitalia exams of people coming to the ER with maladies such as sore throats and headaches.

By 2009, the doctor’s fellow practitioners have had enough. They report him to the Texas Medical Board. Two who anonymously report him were the no-nonsense hospital quality assurance nurses, Mitchell and Galle, who between them had 46 years of experience at the hospital and immense respect.

When notified of the report, the doctor becomes outraged and enlists his buddy the sheriff to find out who made the report. The sheriff obtains confidential information from the medical board through fraudulent means, and the reports are traced down to the two nurses. The hospital administrator, Wiley, instantly fires the nurses.

The story gets really weird here. What transpired next is something that has not happened in any state. In a stunning display of prosecutorial might, the nurses are indicted on felony charges of misuse of official information. If convicted, they face a maximum of 10 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. The case makes national headlines.

The two nurses and their families wait nearly a year for their trial. They have lost their jobs and incomes. Galle retires early. Mitchell, who is 15 years shy of retirement age, finds another county job, but not as a nurse. She takes a $35,000 annual pay cut, just as her son enters college.

The criminal charges against Galle are dropped, but Mitchell endures a four-day trail before the jury acquits her after less than an hour of deliberations. Once again, the case makes national headlines.

After Mitchell’s acquittal, Abbott opens an investigation into the case. In January, the doctor, sheriff, county attorney and hospital administrator are indicted on charge of retaliation against the nurses.

Roberts, the former sheriff, and Tidwell, the county attorney, each face six counts — two counts each of misuse of official information and retaliation (third-degree felonies) and official oppression (class A misdemeanor).

Wiley, the hospital administrator who hired Arafiles and fired the nurses, is indicted on two charges of retaliation. In March, he pleads guilty to abuse of official capacity for his role in the firing of the two nurses and promises to cooperate with the prosecution.

Last week, after a seven-day criminal trial and less than two hours deliberation, a Midland County jury convicted Roberts on all charges. He was sentenced — and unable to appeal — to four years of felony probation, $6,000 in fines and 100 days behind the bars of the same jail he ran for 20 years. He will be removed from office and must surrender his peace officer’s license. He will also retire from the county — with full benefits. Wiley testified during Roberts’ trial.

Two defendants await trial: Tidwell and the doctor. Arafiles continues his $200,000 job at the hospital even after the indictments. His contract is not renewed, and he now practices in Grand Saline. If convicted of a felony, he will lose his medical license.

Despite the legal vindication, the nurses have lost their careers, half of their incomes and their quality of life. Why? For doing the right thing to protect patients.

The case prompted legislative action to protect nurses from criminal prosecution for patient advocacy. Howard and Nelson co-sponsored successful legislation to keep this nightmare from happening again. The governor should sign this bill.

Oh, if only this were all a movie script and not real life.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident, is a retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews. She also wrote a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial pages for 10 years.