Waiting Room

Amy Pollman's life changed one night in January 1995, when a psychiatric patient at Porter Hospital who was known to be suicidal smothered herself with a plastic bag that had escaped the notice of hospital employees.

Pollman was at home when the call came. It was the first suicide at Porter's twenty-patient psychiatric unit since she had started managing it more than three years earlier. "I went in [to the hospital] to be there for the staff. As manager of the unit, it was my task to investigate what, if anything, had gone wrong and to see if our policies and procedures were followed correctly," says Pollman, who had never even laid eyes on the patient.

The woman had been transferred to Porter for psychiatric treatment after being rushed to another Denver hospital during a failed overdose attempt; she had used the plastic bag to carry her belongings between hospitals, but no one knows whether she intended to use the bag as a weapon all along or whether it merely came in handy when she decided to try to kill herself the day after being admitted.

Before patients can be checked in to the psychiatric unit, they must be searched to make sure they don't have anything -- including plastic bags -- that could be used to harm themselves or others. Pollman discovered that the three nurses and the psychiatric technician who admitted the patient hadn't conducted a thorough search. But on the same day she suspended them, Pollman's supervisors suspended her. "It was quite distressing to me and very much a surprise," she says, adding that she had never been disciplined in her entire career. She has been practicing since 1978, when she graduated from Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a bachelor's degree in nursing. The job at Porter was Pollman's first in Colorado.

An unresolved matter in her personnel file lead to the suspension: A few months back, another Porter patient claimed she had overdosed on pills that she had brought into the hospital after a visit home. Pollman was on vacation when the patient made the allegation; while she was gone, her supervisor placed a memo in her personnel file asking her to find out whether the hospital's search policy had been followed. Soon after, her supervisor's job was eliminated, and Pollman never followed up on the memo with her new boss. But she did investigate the patient's claims; blood tests showed no evidence of medication in her system.

"Because the memo was still in my file, they felt there were some similar issues to this case -- that hospital procedures may not have been followed," Pollman says. "Procedures were followed, but because I had not reported back to my director informing her of what I'd done about the situation, they gave me a three-month severance and career counseling."

During her time off, Pollman decided she'd had enough of working in hospitals, so she moved to California to help a friend start a home health-care program. She got a California nursing license and stayed there for a year. But she missed her family, so in September 1996 she moved back home to Kansas City and took a job as director of psychiatric services at a home health agency. She became licensed to practice nursing in both Kansas and Missouri, since Kansas City nurses often treat patients in both states. Pollman's Colorado license was up for renewal in October of that year, but she decided to let it lapse because she didn't plan to return to Denver.

A month later Pollman got a letter from the Colorado Board of Nursing informing her that she was going to be investigated for her role in the 1995 suicide, along with her direct supervisor, the director of nursing and every nurse who had worked that weekend. One of the nurses, who has since quit nursing and is still battling the board, says, "If you're a criminal, you get arraigned within a certain period of time; if you're a nurse, there's no statute of limitations. Something that happened years ago can come back to haunt you."

The board even scrutinized a nurse who had incorrectly taken the patient's blood pressure. "How did everyone else get thrown in the pot? What did an incorrect blood-pressure reading have to do with the death?" asks Pollman, who immediately retained the help of a Porter Hospital attorney. (The patient's family never sued the hospital or any of its employees.)

Almost a year passed without a word. In October 1997, Pollman received a letter from the Colorado Attorney General's Office stating that the Board of Nursing had forwarded her case to them. "There wasn't anything I could do. The board decided the case warranted turning over to the attorney general's office, even though my lawyer told them they had no jurisdiction over me because I had provided no direct care to the patient," Pollman says.