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Pro-union nurse sues Hospital

A registered nurse who worked for 17 years at Duke Hospital filed a lawsuit Monday in Durham Superior Court, alleging officials fired her because she tried to rekindle nurse unionization efforts.

In the suit, Durham resident Constance Donahue claims Hospital officials terminated her because she was vocal in pushing for a nurses union--not because she left a patient for about 11 minutes to take a bathroom and cigarette break June 26, as officials said.

The suit names the University and Duke University Health System as defendants, and it specifies Hospital Chief Executive Officer Dr. William Fulkerson; Clinical Operations Director of General Surgery, Trauma and Transplant Christine Roeback; and Nurse Manager for the Surgical Intensive Care Unit Elizabeth Hickey as individuals involved in the firing.

Fulkerson did not return repeated requests for an interview Monday, and Roeback and Hickey declined comment. Assistant University Counsel Kate Hendricks, to whom Roeback deferred all comments, also did not return calls.

"The facts are pretty clearly stated in the complaint," said Stewart Fisher, of Glenn, Mills & Fisher, the Durham law firm representing Donahue. "I believe [Donahue] has been mistreated by Duke and I look forward to the trial of her case. I've represented a lot of Duke employees over the years and I'm tired of seeing the University mistreat people."

Before her firing, Donahue was pushing for a union. In 1999 and 2000, she served as an organizer in the movement to join the International Union of Operating Engineers, which already represents Hospital engineers and skilled maintenance employees. After an October 2000 vote to unionize failed, Fulkerson, Roeback and Hickey all spoke individually with Donahue about why a union was not a good idea, the suit alleges.

In April 2002, after Fulkerson became CEO, the Hospital announced a cut in health insurance benefits for future retirees. Donahue claims widespread discontent among nurses and other employees restarted a unionization campaign, which Fulkerson and others did not welcome. Two months later, Donahue left a patient for a bathroom break, and she was fired for the action a month after that.

Donahue claims that on the day of the incident, she transported a patient to the Radiology Unit and left the patient with two physicians and a respiratory therapist. Donahue suffers from a medical condition known as "hyperactive bladder syndrome," which causes her to urinate frequently. She also was beginning her menstrual cycle. After taking a bathroom break and smoking a cigarette, she returned 11 minutes later to find the doctors and therapist still with the patient. She then remained with the patient until the end of her shift.

On July 21, Roeback told Donahue that a supervisor of the respiratory therapist complained she had left the patient. Five days later, Donahue met with Roeback and Hickey, and after they "criticiz[ed her] harshly for her nursing care and her judgment," they placed her on administrative leave. She met with Hickey alone July 28, and expressed her concern that she "was being made an example in order to scare other nurses and that... Hickey and... Roeback were taking their orders from top level management at Duke with regard to the situation."

In a meeting three days later, Roeback, Hickey and a representative of the staff and labor relations department fired her.

The suit also charges that Hickey and Roeback falsified a Surgical Intensive Care Unit reference guide by adding an undated protocol entitled "R.N. Cross Coverage" after the June 26 incident. The protocol effectively requires that if a registered nurse must leave a patient, the nurse must notify the charge nurse or a neighboring nurse to provide coverage. The suit claims neither the protocol nor any such set of guidelines existed in the reference guide before June 26, and that it was added in after Donahue's firing, "but [was] left... undated so that it would appear that [Donahue] had violated a written rule."

Fisher explained that a page of the guide was redone and placed back inside the loose-leaf binder in the SICU.

Citing eight other cases, Donahue claims other nurses in the SICU had not been terminated for worse offenses--including the accidental switching of an intravenous bag of insulin and Zantac that resulted in irreversible brain damage to a patient--and that other nurses had not received disciplinary actions for leaving their patients for bathroom or cigarette breaks.

Fisher said he advised his client not to speak with the press, but added that she is now working at another nursing job. Fisher also represented a Hospital woman who claimed sexual harassment after a 1991 incident.