Texas nurse who contracted Ebola sues hospital company
She was the first person to contract Ebola in the United States, and now she’s suing the hospital where she got infected.
Nina Pham, a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, filed a lawsuit Monday against the hospital’s parent company, Texas Health Resources. She claims the company made her “a symbol of corporate neglect — a casualty of a hospital system’s failure to prepare for a known and impending medical crisis.”
THR ignored Ebola warnings, its chief medical officer “made numerous patently false statements to Congress,” and the company “wholly failed to ensure that appropriate polices, procedures, and equipment were in place,” leaving health care providers untrained, unprotected and at risk for exposure, the lawsuit says.
“I was hoping that THR would be more open and honest about everything that happened at the hospital, and the things they didn’t do that led to me getting infected with Ebola,” Pham said in a statement. “But that didn’t happen and I felt I was left with no choice but to turn to the courts for help.”
The company’s CEO, Barclay Berdan, sent a letter to employees Monday night after news of the lawsuit broke.
“Nina and so many others of you served very bravely during a most difficult time as we all struggled to deal with the first case of Ebola to arrive in a U.S. hospital’s emergency room,” the statement read.
“Texas Health Resources values our strong culture of caring and compassion, and we view all employees as part of our family. That’s why we have continued to support Nina both during and after her illness, and it’s why she is still a member of our team.”
‘In a cruel twist…’
According to the suit, the hospital chain failed to provide proper training to handle Ebola. Pham contracted the disease last fall while treating Thomas Eric Duncan, who started showing symptoms after arriving in Dallas from Liberia.
“In a cruel twist, after watching Mr. Duncan go through the horrific and painful course of the disease as she desperately tried to save his life, Nina herself was diagnosed with Ebola just two days after Mr. Duncan’s life was taken by it,” the lawsuit states.
Because the hospital initially discharged Duncan when he arrived seeking treatment, it hurt his chances of beating the virus, the lawsuit says.
“Had THR heeded the CDC and other warnings and ensured its hospitals were ready for Ebola, Mr. Duncan would have had the best opportunity to possibly survive,” it says.
Pham also claims that the hospital failed to provide her with the necessary protective equipment, despite CDC warnings.
“Based on what she could learn from the Internet, on the first day she cared for Mr. Duncan, Nina put on a regular isolation gown covering her front and back, double gloves, a surgical mask with plastic shield and double booties. Importantly, Nina’s neck and hair remained exposed. 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 says.
When her mother learned she was treating Duncan, she tried to persuade her to call in sick or even quit, but Pham replied, “Mom, I can’t abandon him. He is my patient. It’s my job. I’m going back,” according to the lawsuit.
Texas Health Resources spokesman Wendell Watson issued a statement in response to the lawsuit:
“Nina Pham served very bravely during a most difficult time as we all struggled to deal with the first case of Ebola to arrive in a U.S. hospital’s emergency room. Texas Health Resources has a strong culture of caring and compassion, and we view all our employees as part of our family. That’s why we have continued to support Nina both during and after her illness, and it’s why she is still a member of our team. As distressing as the lawsuit is to us, we remain optimistic that we can resolve this matter with Nina.”
Comparing the conditions facing nurses to what one would expect in a poorly developed country, the suit further states that after Duncan died, Pham was told she was at “no risk” for Ebola “and that she could freely see her friends and family.”
Two days later, she found out she had Ebola.
“THR quickly learned that Nina and her dog Bentley had enormous public support and sympathy. So THR began trying to use Nina as a PR tool to save its plummeting image. While Nina laid in isolation, heavily medicated and facing a potentially gruesome death, THR had its PR department calling Nina. The PR Department was trying to release information and use Nina as part of its THR-corporate-driven #PresbyProud campaign,” the lawsuit says.
Pham’s lawsuit also says Texas Health Resources violated her privacy by sharing her medical records.
In his letter to employees, Berdan said the company had Pham’s permission to release information.
“THR was sensitive to Nina’s privacy, and we adhered to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rules in determining what information to share publicly,” the CEO said. “We had Nina’s consent to share the information about her that was released.”
Another nurse treating Duncan, Amber Vinson, also contracted Ebola. Both nurses recovered after being sent to hospitals specially equipped and staffed to handle Ebola — Pham at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, and Vinson at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Nightmares and stigma
Pham is still employed and is getting a paycheck from Texas Health Resources, but has not returned to work, CNN affiliate KTVT said. She is still suffering fatigue and body aches, but her lawyer told the affiliate it’s not clear whether the ailments are from Ebola or from the experimental drugs Pham received.
She also experiences anxiety and frequent nightmares and suffers from the stigma of being the Ebola nurse and she may not nurse again, the lawsuit says
“Professionally, she doubts whether she can ever be a critical care nurse again — in part because of the emotional stress and anxiety over the trauma she experienced and in part because of the fear and stigma that follows her. So despite only just beginning to pursue her dream of a career in critical care nursing, Nina is now faced with the possibility of never returning to her passion,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit seeks damages for past and future physical pain, mental anguish, physical impairment, loss of enjoyment of life, medical expenses, loss of earning capacity and loss of reputation the lawsuit says. It does not set an amount for damages sought.
“The fact is, I’m facing a number of issues with regard to my health and my career and the lawsuit provides a way to address them,” Pham said in her statement. “But more importantly, it will help uncover the truth of what happened, and educate all health care providers and administrators about ways to be better prepared for the next public health emergency.
“I particularly want to express my continued sympathy to the family of Mr. Duncan, as it was my privilege to care for him. I also want to acknowledge my fellow nurses, and the many friends, family and strangers for their ongoing concern and support.”
CNN’s Karan Olson, Chandler Friedman and Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.
By Eliott C. McLaughlin and Holly Yan