‘Horrific’ guilt: Nurse asked to resign to save her patients from neglect

By: - April 23, 2021 9:04 am
Close-up of woman holding senior man's hand leaning on cane

An Iowa judge has ruled that a nurse was justified in quitting her job at a Lee County nursing home due to concerns that staffing levels were unlawful and were unsafe for residents. (Photo by Getty Images.)

A Christian nursing home in eastern Iowa allegedly coerced one of its nurses to resign, claiming patients were suffering from neglect due to her use of medical leave.

In 2017, Licensed Practical Nurse Mary McGee began working for Christian Retirement Service and its Iowa City nursing home, the Oaknoll Retirement Residence. She continued to work there until September 2020 when she was asked to resign.

According to the recent findings of a state administrative law judge, Duane Golden, the nursing home had granted McGee a medical leave of absence in August 2020. About four weeks later, her employer asked to come work for a meeting, so McGee went to Oaknoll and met with Krissy Gilbreth, the human resources officer for Christian Retirement Services; Kim Bergen-Jackson, the administrator of Oaknoll; and Sara Ruhlmann, the director of nursing at Oaknoll.

At that meeting, Judge Golden later found, McGee was told that the company was having difficulty caring for her patients while she was out on a leave of absence. Bergen-Jackson and the others explained that since they could not legally replace McGee while she was on medical leave, her patients were suffering from inadequate care and attention. They then placed a voluntary resignation in front of McGee and told her she should sign the document so that Christian Retirement Services could hire someone new to care for the patients.

According to Judge Golden, McGee felt “horrifically guilty” and signed the voluntary resignation that her employer had placed in front of her. She later testified that she did so because she felt that she had to do so or her patients would suffer from a lack of medical care. She later applied for unemployment benefits, which her employer challenged, citing her voluntary resignation.

Judge Golden ruled recently that McGee is entitled to benefits, stating that she did not quit her job but was discharged for no reason that would disqualify her from collecting benefits.

Bergen-Jackson told the Iowa Capital Dispatch the judge’s decision indicates only that McGee is entitled to unemployment insurance benefits, “not that her separation of employment was wrongful.” She said that Christian Retirement Services Inc. complies with all applicable federal, state and local employment laws, and is committed to providing equal employment opportunities.

According to state records, nursing home inspectors have not cited Oaknoll for any deficiencies in resident care since 2017.

Iowans accused of health-related misconduct 

Here’s a look at other Iowans whose unemployment-benefit cases were recently decided by a judge:

— Caitlin Nemechek, who worked as a full-time 911 dispatcher for the City of Marshalltown from March 2015 until she was fired in November of last year for violations of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

She was accused of using her employer’s computer-assisted dispatch system database, which indicates whether a household is known to have had a COVID-19 infection, to look up the address of the person who drives her children to school. She also was accused of looking at the address of a detective who also works for the city.

She was granted unemployment benefits, with the judge noting Nemechek wasn’t fired until 21 days after the city learned of the potential HIPAA violations.

— Rose Ayers, who worked for the Community Health Centers of Southern Iowa from November 2018 until her termination in June 2020 for allegedly violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

She was fired after admitting that she told patients that if they had visited a particular flower shop in town — where a worker had tested positive for COVID-19 — they should be tested for the virus. Because the flower shop in town is small, with only a few employees, the advice was considered a violation of patient privacy.

At her unemployment hearing, Ayers pointed out that after one of her co-workers tested positive she had told patients of the clinic they should be tested, and she had also recommended to patients exposed to a local meat packing plant be tested. She was awarded unemployment benefits.

— Jessica Steele, who worked as a patient care coordinator for Genesis Health Systems. She was accused of misconduct and fired after an incident that involved a colleague receiving a bottle of wine, at work, as a gift from a supervisor.

The colleague was given permission to share the wine with others at work and gave a glass to Steele who dumped the wine without consuming any of it. She was awarded unemployment benefits due to the lack of any job-related misconduct.

— Barbara Van Houten, who worked at the Willowdale Wellness Village nursing home in Battle Creek last fall when a COVID-19 outbreak was reported at the nearby Good Samaritan Home in Holstein.

Van Houten, after being asked by Willowdale managers whether she had worked recently at the Good Samaritan Home, allegedly was evasive and then denied having worked there. She was fired after her employer learned she had worked at the Good Samaritan Home and she was later denied unemployment benefits for actions that could have placed residents of Willowdale at risk.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.