It’s been a topsy-turvy year for Kenisa Barkai. She was fired from her job at Sinai Grace Hospital at the Detroit Medical Center on March 27th, 2020, just as the pandemic was spreading like wildfire throughout the Midwest. She lost her job about ten days after she recorded a video inside the hospital saying the facility needed more beds and PPE to account for the growing number of COVID-19 patients.
Nurses aren’t usually encouraged to upload photos and videos of themselves on the job to social media, but what if they feel their lives are in danger?
Blowing the Whistle
Since the incident, Barkai has filed a whistleblower complaint against Detroit Medical Center in Wayne County Circuit Court. Records show that she recorded the seven-second video the same day she shared her safety concerns with hospital management. The document says she “expressed her dismay with facility safety and how the lack of staffing resulted in prospective dangers to patients, both under her care and at Sinai-Grace generally.”
She also says she raised these concerns repeatedly during the weeks leading up to the pandemic, “which included…telling these high-ranking individuals she would make a report to proper government agencies about potential violations,” the lawsuit alleges.
Her attorney, Jim Rasor, says her concerns went unanswered.
“I wasn’t telling a story,” Barkai said at the time. “It was the truth and all we are asking for was help to make things better in the hospital.”
The Detroit Medical Center reportedly fired Barkai for violating its social media policy, but Rasor argues the move was “pretext for Defendant’s retaliatory conduct to silence Plaintiff and, upon information and belief, discourage other staff from reporting unlawful acts or code violations and from speaking to the press.”
“I don’t feel that I violated the social media policy per se,” Barkai said. “Especially at a time like this when everyone around the world is voicing their concerns, opinions, facts.”
The lawsuit states that Barkai’s firing violated the state’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act. She’s now seeking $25,000 in damages. Records show that she had worked at the hospital since 2011 and did not have a disciplinary record.
Rasor points to several recent scandals at the hospital as further evidence that the facility put staff and patients in jeopardy, including several news reports of dead bodies being stacked on top of each other in the hospital and refrigerated trucks to make more space. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says these reports are being investigated.
Soon after filing the suit last year, Rasor held a press conference stating that a healthcare provider “can’t retaliate against a nurse whose sole goal was to advise the authorities of inappropriate actions that were jeopardizing patient care. They can’t fire her during the biggest pandemic for which her services were crucially needed.”
In response to the suit, DMC says its PPE and staffing policies are directed by the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The facility also argues it was hit harder than other local Michigan hospitals because it’s the only one in Northwest Detroit and is surrounded by nursing homes.
Picking Up the Pieces
It’s been almost one year since Barkai was fired from DMC, but she’s still doing whatever she can to fight the pandemic. She now works on a COVID-19 crisis team that goes into other states that need urgent help. Right after she lost her job, Barkai started a GoFundMe page to help feed all the frontline workers in the neighborhood. The initiative raised over $7,000.
Looking back on the ordeal with DMC, she says, “It wasn’t just about the equipment. It was, you know, with everything; the education, the information, about what was to be expected. We could have been prepared for what happened in the last year, actually,” she said.
She wants hospitals and facilities to listen to those on the front lines. Meanwhile, her whistleblower litigation is still pending.
“When I start to think about it, I would do it again. Do it again in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t change a thing,” Barkai said. “I am nurse strong. I know nurses are behind me. Maybe they can’t speak up, but I know they stand behind me 100%.”