News & Events

Fired nurse sues hospital

Says dismissal was retaliation

By Shelley Murphy, Globe Staff

Margaret “Peg’’ O’Connor, a nurse who worked at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth for more than 38 years, said she was fired in May for doing the right thing. She reported a violation by the hospital that allegedly put a pregnant patient and her unborn twins at risk.

O’Connor, who filed a lawsuit yesterday, had told federal authorities that the woman, who was six months pregnant when she arrived in the Jordan emergency room in March with flulike systems and went into labor, was transferred to another hospital without being examined by a doctor.

By the time the woman, a diabetic whose identity was not disclosed, arrived at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth a half-hour later, she required an urgent caesarean section, according to federal documents. One of the twins had placental abruption, a serious complication in which the placenta peels away from the wall of the uterus before delivery, causing possible lack of oxygen to the baby and heavy bleeding in the mother. The feet of one of the babies was protruding through her cervix.

The mother and babies recovered. But a state Department of Public Health inspector found in May that the hospital violated a federal law that prohibits hospitals from transferring patients without making sure they are stable and have been examined by a physician. The inspector found four additional violations by the hospital involving patient transfers, exposing the hospital to possible fines of up to $50,000 for each violation.

On May 19, the day the Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services dispatched a team of inspectors to Jordan Hospital to conduct a broader review, O’Connor was fired. She said it was six months after she had received an exemplary performance evaluation.

“I kept thinking, how do you fire someone for reporting a wrong to a patient?’’ said O’Connor, who filed a whistle-blower suit yesterday in US District Court in Boston against Jordan’s president, vice president, board of directors, and chief medical officer. “When there is an adverse event in a hospital, there should be transparency. That’s what we’re there to do, protect patients.’’

Connor, 62, who was director of occupational health and risk management at Jordan for decades, said she was required by law to report the alleged violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act and was then penalized.

Jordan Hospital released a statement yesterday saying that O’Connor’s termination “was entirely unrelated to any report of the EMTALA violation, and Jordan Hospital intends to vigorously defend itself against the allegations to the contrary.’’

The hospital also said it “immediately recognized the violation’’ and reported it to the state Department of Public Health, which conducted a comprehensive review on behalf of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“Due to patient confidentiality, we are unable to comment further about the patient matter,’’ the statement said.

Sarah Darcy, a spokeswoman for South Shore Hospital, said federal privacy laws bar her from commenting about the patient; and she would not talk about allegations in O’Connor’s lawsuit at this time.

However, Darcy said: “In all matters, South Shore Hospital errs on the side of caution in reporting matters to the Department of Public Health. We believe in transparency.’’

During a recent interview at her lawyer’s office in Needham, O’Connor said she was unaware of the transfer involving the pregnant woman until her counterpart at South Shore Hospital called her shortly after the incident in March and said: “What the heck’s going on over there? Don’t you have any doctors?’’

Staff at South Shore Hospital were upset that the woman, who was a high-risk patient, had arrived in such serious condition and that one of the babies had ingested blood because of complications and had to be intubated and put on a respirator, O’Connor said.

After launching an internal investigation, O’Connor said she discovered that the patient had been examined at Jordan Hospital by a certified nurse practitioner, not a physician. The nurse treated the woman, then signed off on the transfer after the woman asked to go to South Shore Hospital, where she had planned to deliver.

A state inspector found that Jordan Hospital failed to meet standards that required the woman to be examined by a physician, stabilized, and warned of the risks and benefits before being transferred, according to documents released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The inspector also found that four other patients at Jordan had been transferred without proper physician certification.

O’Connor said an attorney for Jordan Hospital advised her to report the alleged violation to federal authorities. But in a meeting with hospital officials, she said, the chief financial officer, Peter Holden, urged her to make sure they were required to report it before she did and wanted to know how much such a violation would cost if sustained. O’Connor said she told them reporting was mandatory and later notified authorities.

Federal authorities have yet to decide whether fines are warranted against Jordan Hospital.

Needham attorney Timothy Burke, who represents O’Connor, said the whistle-blower statute protects health care providers who report violations and added, “Frankly it’s outrageous that someone as committed and devoted to the Jordan Hospital would be treated this way.’’

Shelley Murphy can be reached at