The director of Rex Hospital’s emergency department has stepped down in the wake of a federal investigation into Rex’s treatment of a violent mentally ill patient who was immobilized in restraints and stunned twice with a Taser during his hospital stay.
Rex said Thursday that Sherry Whitt is no longer director of the emergency department, but would not provide other details about her employment status, citing personnel privacy.
“She said that following recent events, her stepping down would help ensure the long-term stability of the Rex ED,” Rex said in a statement.
In interviews with investigators, Whitt was at odds with other hospital staff and with hospital administrators in her assessment of the incident that shook up Rex staff in January and February. Rex doctors and nurses told investigators the patient, who was threatening to kill health care workers, had to be restrained for everyone’s safety. The patient was hospitalized at Rex until room became available in a psychiatric hospital.
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Rex officials have consistently defended the conduct of the nursing staff and security guards who had to deal with the patient with a record of history of psychosis, paranoia and incarceration.
But Whitt told investigators Rex nurses were out of their league and improperly trained when dealing with the violent 24-year-old patient, even though he had to be forcibly subdued after he attacked nurses and security officers. In one incident, the patient nearly ripped off the eyelid of a security officer, forcing the guard into the emergency room for treatment.
At least one complaint was filed by Rex nurse James Gibbs, who is protected by federal whistle-blower status against retaliation by hospital officials. Despite Whitt’s concerns about Rex’s treatment of the patient, she did not file a complaint to federal health authorities, and is not afforded whistle-blower status.
The incident could have cost Rex more than a quarter of a billion dollars a year in federal funding. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services placed Rex in “immediate jeopardy” of losing federal funding after its initial investigation, which was conducted by employees from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. However, Medicare and Medicaid funding was not cut off after Rex removed Taser guns from its security guards and made other policy changes.
The 17-day episode involved attacks on six hospital employees, all of them African Americans. Nurses and others told investigators that the patient spat at them, punched them and taunted them with racial slurs.
According to the 281-page investigation report, Whitt acknowledged Rex has never had such a violent patient, then blamed the staff for miscommunicating and mismanaging the situation.
“I thought they were trained a lot better than this,” Whitt told investigators. “I do not feel the staff followed the policy as intended. I think the patient should have received every chance to be released from restraints as soon as possible.”