Psych unit failed to prevent patients suicide; former staff report unsafe conditions
December 7, 2011
HARRISON — St. Vincent's Hospital must investigate why it failed to prevent the suicide of a female patient on Saturday and then make a report to the state Office of Mental Health.
Meanwhile, a former nurse there has come forward to claim that he complained about poor monitoring of patients but was brushed off by supervisors.
Nubia Fernandez, 52, who last lived at a White Plains homeless shelter, hanged herself Saturday afternoon at the Harrison psychiatric facility, the Westchester County Medical Examiner's Office said.
Until about a year ago, Walt Gehring said he used to work as a charge nurse in the unit where the suicide occurred. He said he complained to managers about low staffing on the weekends and alerted them when he consistently caught one nursing assistant not checking patients.
"On several occasions I made complaints about this particular employee sleeping in the TV room and just not doing his job," said Gehring, who now works as a community health nurse in Mount Vernon for the state OMH. "I was told, 'Just leave it alone. Don't make any waves.' These are people that have to back me up when there is a psych emergency and a patient is violent. If I caused problems, I felt like they wouldn't come to my assistance."
There was also a push to classify some patients for less strict monitoring to free up staff when the floor was short, he said.
A spokesman for St. Joseph's Medical Center in Yonkers, which owns St. Vincent's, declined to comment on the allegations.
Suicides at psychiatric facilities must be reported to the state, and the facility has to conduct a review of the incident, Leesa Rademacher, OMH's director of intergovernmental relations, said in an email. The Westchester County Health Department confirmed that the Department of Community Mental Health is involved with the review.
If the state deems St. Vincent's report "insufficient," it will conduct its own investigation, Rademacher said.
Suicides at psychiatric hospitals in New York state are uncommon, according to a state OMH report.
From 2002 to 2008, there were 122 suicides either in inpatient mental health treatment facilities or within 72 hours of a patient discharge.
It was unclear when the last suicide occurred at St. Vincent's, but the facility has had a history of violence among patients, with nurses voicing concern about dangerous working conditions. Mike Gurry, a St. Vincent's nurse and union representative, told The Journal News in 2009 there had been as many as 15 serious assaults at the hospital that year.
Gehring, the former nurse, said the constant violence and not enough help were reasons why he left.
He said he hopes this suicide will finally prompt change.
"I really cared a lot for the patients I worked with at St. Vincent's," Gehring said. "If there is anything I would like to see, it's people treated better at that hospital."
St. Joseph's took over the Harrison hospital after St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan filed for bankruptcy protection last year.
Post your own comment here: