Travel Nurse Marian Weber knew something was wrong while working at the PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center in Alaska during the pandemic. She watched patients with COVID-19 go unmonitored for long periods of time, so she shared her concerns with hospital administration. She claims they ended up retaliating against her instead of addressing the problem.
Poor Patient Monitoring
Weber arrived in Ketchikan back in April after moving from Louisiana. As another surge of COVID-19 cases hit the area, she noticed patients coming in from long-term care facilities, and many of them were critically ill.
“We had one patient that was intubated, and we had one that required continuous BiPAP (a type of ventilator), and these are ICU-level…patients,” she said.
Many of them had COVID-19, but Weber says they were denied access to the ICU, even though there were beds available that were equipped to monitor patients suffering from the deadly virus.
They were placed with other patients with COVID-19 in the medical surgical ward, but that was a problem because Weber and others couldn’t effectively monitor these patients from outside their rooms.
“Typically, in your ICU units, the rooms are comprised of glass doors that allow you to have eyes-on monitoring,” she said.
Weber added that the rooms in the medical surgical unit are opaque, which makes it hard to see inside. There’s also a patient monitoring station in the ICU that providers can use to check vital signs with alarms that go off if something goes wrong.
“So, we had no way to effectively monitor our patients on the level that is required,” she said. “And anything can go wrong with these patients.”
Weber says the facility suggested keeping one nurse in the room to monitor these patients, but she was worried that staying in the room for too long would increase her chances of getting infected.
When she shared these concerns with her manager, they told her to call a hospital administrator.
“And I did,” she said. “And she responded with, ‘I need you to understand the verbiage I’m about to use and share it with your traveling coworkers. You are not staff. You are guests here, and you can leave at any time. There is a long line of travelers waiting to take your job.’”
Weber was shocked, to say the least.
“I asked her to tread very carefully in our conversation, because it sounded like, when I voiced concerns about staff and patient safety, Sherry (Dunlay) was responding by threatening my position,” she said. “So when I explained that concern to her, she responded to me, ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”
She then filed a formal ethics complaint against the hospital using the facility’s anonymous tip line.
Four days later, she was fired – even though she had just signed a four-month extension a week earlier.
“If they’re not happy with your work, they’re not going to extend you, even at times when they’re short staffed,” she said.
In addition to losing her job, she’s worried that the outcome will dissuade other providers from raising safety concerns.
“When a system retaliates, like PeaceHealth Ketchikan did, against a nurse for voicing safety concerns, it creates a chilling effect in that other nurses and health care staff will not speak out in fear of retaliation from administration,” she said. “And this can result in harm or death of patients and/or staff.”
A Proper Investigation
State and local officials are now investigating the case after Weber accused the hospital of retaliating against her. Weber has also asked the National Labor Relations Board to consider hers a whistleblower case, but both complaints remain in the early process.
The facility declined to comment on any of Weber’s comments. However, a spokesperson released a prepared statement that said the facility “has followed and continues to follow state and federal guidelines” when caring for COVID-19 patients. The spokesperson added that patient and caregiver safety remains the hospital’s top priority and that the hospital takes all reported concerns seriously.
The Alaska Nurses Association came out in support of Weber.
Program director Andrea Nutty said, “Our working conditions are our patients’ healing conditions. A safety risk to an employee is a safety risk to you or your loved one.”