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But when she noticed that nurses were cleaning patients with washcloths that had been sitting in an unsanitized sink, she confronted them and later brought it up in a staff meeting. "I didn't blame anyone; I just asked the nurses not to lay the washcloths in the sink anymore and then use them on patients," she says. "That's when the complaints about me started coming."

Shortly after the washcloth incident, a nurse's aide asked Teresa to help clean a patient while Teresa was busy dispensing medication. "I told her to ask someone else to help her because I couldn't leave what I was doing, and she accused me of saying the patient could lie in his excrement. That complaint ended up in my personnel file!

"There was a lot of immaturity on that unit, and a lot of resentment. It was not a place where you could make suggestions for better patient care without being retaliated against." Teresa, who had had a flawless record since she began her career in 1965, says she ended up being accused of not being a team worker.

In her first several months on the job, sixteen complaints were made against her, but Teresa didn't know about them until January 25, 1993, when she received a memo from the hospital's head nurse. The memo said: "Co-workers frequently think that you do not respect or trust them." The head nurse directed Teresa to act "as an equal member of the team, not the superior; communicate your needs, but do not dictate."

Since the memo didn't cite any specific incidents, Teresa was left to guess. The memo ended with the following admonition: "This is Step II of the disciplinary action, a written warning. Failure to comply with the above expectations will result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination."

The real reason behind the complaints, Teresa says, is the fact that she "dared to question" things. Teresa requested that more nurses and support staff be assigned to her unit because nurses were getting sidetracked with other duties such as emptying trash cans, staffing nurses for the next shift and answering phones. It seemed that every time she raised an issue, another complaint was added to her personnel file.

The file eventually made its way to the Board of Nursing.

On July 9, 1994, a hospital employee walked into a room and saw that a patient's bed rail had been left down. Teresa was the last nurse to have treated the man, but she couldn't remember whether or not she'd forgotten to raise it -- perhaps the patient had lowered the rail. Either way, he hadn't fallen out of bed or tried to get out.

But on July 15, Teresa was fired.

In October 1994, her employer reported her to the nursing board, beginning a five-year inquiry that would deprive Teresa of the strong sense of job security she'd enjoyed during her long career.

In November Teresa received notice of the complaint from the Board of Nursing and was asked to respond to the bed-rail accusation by December 7. She didn't hear from anyone again until April 1995, when the investigator told her he was expanding the case to include all sixteen charges in her personnel file. In June Teresa submitted her answers and then spent the next few months calling the board office to ask when the investigation would be completed.

She says she was repeatedly told that nurses never attend the board meetings at which their cases are discussed, but because of her persistence, Teresa was able to find out when her case was scheduled. In January 1996, she attended the two-day session during which her case was discussed, but neither she nor her attorney were allowed to speak. "They had multiple cases before them, had short discussions and then made decisions quickly," Teresa says. "The boardmembers don't meet the nurses; they don't even know the nurse is a human being. You feel like a piece of meat."

Several days later she received a letter telling her that her case was being referred to the attorney general's office. At the time, Teresa was working part-time for a home health-care agency where she'd worked before the hospital. "I went to them after I was fired, and they believed in me. But the agency was too small for advancement, and I wanted to get more experience, so I started looking for other jobs," she says.

In May she received an order requiring her to admit to twelve complaints and, as her lawyer later explained in writing to the attorney general's office, "to agree to extremely onerous terms of probation which would preclude her from her present, and possibly any future, employment."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon