Paramedic Rick Stolte liked practical jokes. So did his co-workers at the Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton. During almost six years of working there, Stolte saw or participated in everything from snowball fights to cars stuffed with shredded paper to colleagues fooling around in the hospital's computer system.
Neither his bosses nor his colleagues seemed to mind. "We'd always make jokes that you can't get fired from PVMC," he recalls.
But the final joke turned out to be on him. Last October hospital administrators fired Stolte and emergency medical technician Sandra "Sam" Boytim for pulling a seemingly innocuous joke on an older paramedic named Susannah O'Keefe. Boytim and Stolte don't deny participating in the joke: By cutting and pasting, they rearranged a magazine article to make fun of O'Keefe. And they say three others helped them do it.
They had found an article in an emergency medicine magazine about an elderly paramedic named Betty Parks, who, like O'Keefe, was in her fifties and had gotten into EMS later in life. So Stolte, Boytim and the others cut and pasted the article, inserting O'Keefe's name and photo over that of Parks, then teased her about her age by pasting in that she needed "Depends, trifocals and Prozac."
They left their "revised" article on a table in the ambulance day room, and Boytim says she saw it hanging on a wall for a day or two. They don't remember seeing it anymore after that, and they promptly forgot about it. That is, until two months later, when Boytim and Stolte were told they were being fired because of it.
Now that they've moved on to other, lower-paying jobs in their field, Stolte and Boytim are still trying to figure out why they were the only ones fired, or even why they were fired for something so minor. O'Keefe declines to speak with Westword. Hospital spokesman Darryl Meyers confirms the firings but says only that the incident was "totally inappropriate for an employee."
"I think maybe politics were a lot of it, the feeling that somebody had to go," says one member of a panel that last November conducted separate grievance hearings for Boytim and Stolte. The panel wound up not restoring their jobs, although the panelist who spoke with Westword didn't think the pair deserved to be fired. Hospital president John Hicks ruled that the terminations should stand.
Boytim and Stolte believe the hospital caved in after O'Keefe threatened a sexual-harassment suit if the practical jokes continued, but Steve Rollert, O'Keefe's work partner since January, says he's not aware that O'Keefe ever planned a lawsuit.
"Basically, her attitude was she didn't know who had done this," Rollert says, adding that O'Keefe just wanted the practical jokes against her to stop and did not expect the hospital to react as it did. "I talked to her at length, and she said, 'If I had known they were going to do what they were going to do, I would have never done it.'"
Boytim doesn't believe it. "Susannah comes off as this hurt little puppy until she drives a knife through your shoulder blades," she says. "She knew it; she planned it. She didn't like me and she didn't like Rick. She knew exactly what she was doing and exactly what results she wanted."
There seems to be no indication Stolte ever had problems with management, but this wasn't the first time he had pulled pranks on O'Keefe: He recalls filling her car with shredded paper and, in a slightly more personal attack, tying her to a chair with adhesive tape for a few minutes while someone snapped a picture. Boytim, on the other hand, didn't get along with O'Keefe, her former partner, or with her bosses.
"I was surprised Rick was fired, but I knew they were looking for a reason to fire Sam," says Megan Wilcox, a former EMT who left Platte Valley last September. "They didn't like her, and Platte Valley is very much a good ol' boys' network. She had opinions on how things should be done, and when opinions conflicted with management, that's when the trouble started."
But while there's plenty of uncertainty about why Stolte and Boytim were really fired, one thing's apparent to some employees: The fallout from their firings has turned a once-happy working environment into a tense place.
Before the termination, practical jokes were very common among paramedics and firefighters--as they are in many other fire departments--and the doctored magazine article seemed unremarkable when compared with other pranks.
Boytim and Stolte say three others--physician advisor Dr. Henry Johnston and paramedics Chris Scott and Bill Onken--were in on the last O'Keefe prank. Chris Scott refused to talk to Westword; Dr. Johnston did not return repeated phone calls; and Bill Onken, who says he participated in other jokes in the past, says he can't remember whether he was involved in this one. "I remember seeing the article," he says. "I don't know if I ever saw anything with the cutting and pasting. It's possible."
No one knows why this particular joke set people off. "Practical jokes have been going on forever," says Donna Ulrey, a long-standing part-time EMT. "It's a way to keep your sanity in a tense, tragic situation."
In their grievance statements, Stolte and Boytim mention a long list of PVMC gags, which are corroborated by other employees: shredded paper in ambulances, water fights, even a CPR dummy that, according to Boytim, was put in Stolte's car, "handcuffed to the steering wheel, given a whip to hold and dressed in an edible bikini." And Stolte has Polaroids of a dummy fireman reading a paper on an old toilet on his front porch.
Several PVMC employees say they don't recall O'Keefe ever being singled out for practical jokes or being offended by them. Former EMT Mark Rule remembers that O'Keefe participated in jokes as well. He recalls being chased by her once in a water fight.
"And I went over a chain-link fence and caught my hand at the top," Rule says. "I ended up with a nice laceration. She participated in as many of them as the rest. I can't remember any, 'cause they weren't any big deal." But he remembers one joke that might have gone too far. He recalls hanging a glow stick above O'Keefe while she slept and spraying the room she was in with Silly String. "She woke up and saw this thing four feet from her and it scared the hell out of her."
Rule says O'Keefe called him up at home later that night and told him to return to the hospital and "'get whatever the fuck this is out of my room.'" But the next day, he adds, she was no longer upset.
Others say O'Keefe had a good sense of humor about her age; she wore a cap that said "paragranny," and she and another older paramedic were nicknamed the "Geritol crew." "We made jokes like that all the time," Rule says, "but they were right there laughing with us."
However, Wilcox says, "Susannah was a bad sport, and if you're a bad sport, people are gonna tease you more and tease you more."
During November's grievance hearings, Boytim and Stolte were told that O'Keefe's letter of complaint did not include their names, and the ex-employees were not shown a copy of the offending article.
They're not even sure hospital administrators ever saw the article that led to their termination. While the hospital would not comment, at least one member of the five-member grievance panel confirms never seeing the cut-and-pasted article.
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Boytim now works full-time with AMR ambulance service in Denver. Stolte is a park ranger in Aurora and works part-time with the Federal Heights Protection District. Boytim does not plan to pursue her dismissal in court, but Stolte is still considering it. Both regret losing jobs they enjoyed, but Stolte says, "My only grudge is against Susannah for not coming to me, because we were really close friends for six years."
Meanwhile, O'Keefe is still working at PVMC, as are Onken, Johnston and Scott. EMS employees say few practical jokes are being played these days. "Since all of this blew up, it's sad, if not tragic, that the work environment is really paranoid," Ulrey says. "One doesn't feel anyone can be trusted. You have to keep your back to the wall or else you'll get a knife through it." Ulrey says that even though medical performance hasn't suffered, morale has.
The tension is noticeable in the number of staff, former and current, who are reluctant to speak about what happened. "It's been put off-limits by management," Onken says. "It was put out to all of us--it will not be discussed by anyone at any time for any reason. Management won't talk about it. The subject was closed."
There's a lingering feeling of regret over what happened, but it's tempered by the survival instinct. "I'd like to help Rick out," says EMT Don Branning, "but it's not worth getting into again.