The Kafkaesque story told in the lawsuit filed by nurse Nina Pham features a woman who innocently shows up for work one day and finds herself trapped in a nightmare, betrayed by those she trusted to protect her.
Hobbled by limitations on how much it can address an active lawsuit, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and its parent company Texas Health Resources (THR) have not rebutted the individual allegations by Pham. Until they can, the lawsuit paints a damning portrait.
These are some of the allegations in Pham’s lawsuit:
• Nurse Pham did not volunteer to treat the country’s first Ebola patient.
When Pham arrived for her regular shift in the hospital’s intensive care unit, the lawsuit alleges, she was informed that she would be caring for patient Thomas Eric Duncan. She did not volunteer to be his nurse, and the lawsuit claims that the hospital promoted a false story of her heroically volunteering to encourage favorable media coverage. She did not refuse because she felt an obligation to treat the patient assigned to her.
“But the myth perpetuated by THR that this was a ‘volunteer’ health care team obscures the dark reality: Nina was put in the position to take care of Mr. Duncan without any prior knowledge of the risks, dangers, or any training. As with any patient, a nurse can attempt to refuse an assignment, but Nina was not inclined to do that because she saw critical care nursing as a calling, and she had a job to do,” the lawsuit states. “Unfortunately, THR was sending her to do it without the necessary qualifications or protections to do it safely.”
• Pham was misled about Duncan’s condition and the risk of infection.
“She was told Mr. Duncan was in stable condition and could use the bathroom by himself. She was told that she would not have to go in the patient’s room much and could just monitor him remotely, all of which turned out to be untrue,” the lawsuit says.
• Pham was completely unprepared to treat an Ebola patient.
“She had never been trained to handle infectious diseases, never been told anything about Ebola, how to treat Ebola, or how to protect herself as a nurse treating an Ebola patient,” the lawsuit states. “The hospital had never given her any in-services, training or guidance about Ebola. All Nina knew about Ebola is what she had heard on the television about the deadly outbreak in West Africa.”
• The hospital failed to provide even some of the most basic supplies.
“Nina was not even provided disposable scrubs or a change of clothes. She had to wear the scrubs she wore that first day home, taking out of the hospital clothing that was potentially carrying the virus,” the lawsuit claims. Noting that Ebola caregivers in West Africa wear full “moon suits,” the lawsuit says, “Here, at THR’s hospital, the health care providers were given only basic coverings that left them exposed to the highly contagious disease. Despite the claims about our advanced healthcare system, ultimately none of it was brought to bear to protect the healthcare providers here. “Nina Pham would have been better off treating Mr. Duncan in a Liberian Ebola center than in THR’s signature hospital.”
• Pham’s supervisors had to Google information on how to avoid Ebola infection.
When Pham asked her manager what she should do to protect herself from the deadly disease, either her manager or her supervisor went to the Internet, searched Google, printed off information regarding what Pham was supposed to do, and handed her the paper, the lawsuit alleges. The ICU did not have any written polices or manuals about treating level 4 infectious disease patients generally or Ebola specifically, according to the lawsuit.
• The hospital defied Pham’s wishes to remain anonymous and violated her privacy.
On her way to her hospital’s emergency department with possible Ebola symptoms, Pham called the hospital and asked to be registered as a “no information” patient, a method used to protect a patient’s privacy so the patient’s name is not visible to others accessing the electronic health record. The strategy often is used for celebrities or others whose records might be of special interest.
Despite her request, severe illness, and the effects of multiple medications, the public relations department of the hospital’s parent company called Pham repeatedly, according to the lawsuit. The hospital failed to honor her request for anonymity, and her record was “grossly and inappropriately accessed by dozens of people throughout the THR system,” the lawsuit claims. On the day the lawsuit was filed, THR sent a letter to employees saying it had Pham’s consent to share the information about her that was released.
• The hospital’s chief medical officer lied to Congress about staff training and preparedness.
Daniel Varga, MD, the chief medical officer for THR, testified before the U.S. House of Representative Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation on Oct. 16, 2014, regarding THR’s dissemination of infection control policies related to Ebola. “It must be noted that Dr. Varga made numerous patently false statements to Congress, including falsely claiming the hospital staff was trained to manage Ebola and misrepresenting to Congress what type of personal protective equipment, or PPE, the nurses wore at various times when caring for Duncan,” the lawsuit claims.
• The hospital could have easily transferred Duncan to a facility better prepared to treat an Ebola patient.
The Galveston (TX) National Laboratory is a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) Biocontainment Laboratory, one of only two national BSL-4 laboratories in the United States.
“One of the two places in this country and one of the handful of places on earth with qualified and trained experts on the containment and treatment of Ebola was only a phone call and an hour’s flight away,” the lawsuit states.