W for whistleblowers. This past week on This American Life, Ira Glass aired a piece called “Old Boys Network” on the Texas whistleblower nurses. This was the story of Anne Mitchell and Vicki Galle who are two Texas nurses who in 2009 were fired and charged with a felony for voicing concerns about patient safety. They both worked with a doctor in a small town hospital who demonstrated questionable patient care practices, including selling weight-loss herbs, diagnosing and treating patients for hypothyroidism without doing any lab tests, and performing skin grafts in the emergency room. The nurses had complained to the hospital Chief of Staff on several occasions and nothing had been done. So they wrote an anonymous letter of complaint about the doctor to the Texas Medical Board. It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business and the hospital fired them. Then the sheriff came to arrest them for harassment and misuse of official information (they had included specific patient numbers in their letter to the Medical Board in order to back up their specific health care concerns). They faced a $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison.
Naomi Warren, a family nurse practitioner who had worked with them all and who also wrote a letter to the Texas Board of Medicine about the doctor, was not fired or charged with a felony because she had already moved to another town to work. When she found out that her colleagues were being arrested, she called the Texas Nursing Association to enlist their support. Nurses and nursing associations and legal defense rallied around them. Charges were dropped against Vicki Galle, as she says probably because she had lived there a long time and was a born and bred Texas girl. Vicki says that they went through to a trial for Anne because “Anne is a Yankee.” Being a Southern girl myself, I think she’s got that right. Even in official photos of the two nurses, Anne comes across as bolder and brasher and as being much more likely to clash with the Good Ole Boys. Anne went to trial in February 2010. The trial had to be held in another town, the issue was so divisive. The trial lasted four days, the jury deliberated about an hour, but really only for five minutes—they felt like they had to make it look like they were working hard—their verdict for Anne was not guilty. Anne and Vicki countersued the hospital and sheriff in a civil suit—on the same charges of misuse of official information and retaliation against the nurses. In January 2011 they were awarded $750,000, which they split between them—and probably a substantial portion went to their lawyers. Neither nurse has been able to find a job since their firing two years ago. The Scarlet W has marked them.
I listened to an interesting interview with these three nurses conducted by Shawn Kennedy, the Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Nursing. Towards the end of the interview, Ms. Kennedy said that now that the trials are over and it has been two years since their whistleblowing, what goes through their heads? I believe it was Anne who replied in a thoughtful tone, “I don’t think nurses understand what they could have to go through if they report—or if they know that if they report they’ll be labeled a whistleblower and probably can’t get hired again.”
If you think this sort of thing can only happen in a small West Texas town, think again.