Cheryl Pease said she finally felt vindicated last week when a Los Angeles Superior Court jury decided she had been wrongfully fired eight years ago for publicly complaining that a dying premature baby was left unattended on a counter at the hospital where she worked as a nurse.
On Tuesday, the jury awarded Pease $35,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in punitive damages in her suit alleging her wrongful termination by American Medicorp Inc., owners of Baldwin Park Community Hospital, where she worked when the incident occurred.
Pease, a licensed vocational nurse, sued the hospital’s owners in 1978, one year after she saw a premature baby girl, weighing less than a pound and only 10 inches long, lying on an open counter in the nursery.
Born in Ambulance
The baby, Regina Bommarito, had been born in an ambulance en route to the hospital a few hours before Pease came on shift. When she reported for work, Pease said she looked in disbelief at her co-workers, who ignored the premature infant covered with a blanket. The child died a few hours later, despite efforts by Pease to save her. Pease said that the apparent unconcern horrified and enraged her, and she said so--to her superiors, to state and local health officials, and to thousands of television viewers.
Testimony at a subsequent coroner’s inquest indicated that the baby had been placed on the counter after a doctor ordered the life support system in her incubator cut off. The hospital’s neonatalogist testified that he had ordered the cutoff because “the baby’s chances of survival were nil.”
Attempts to reach American Medicorp’s attorney for comment on the suit were unsuccessful.
Pease said in an interview last week that her outspokenness got her fired and nearly ruined her nursing career. And although she feels vindicated that the jury determined she had been wrongfully fired, the victory, Pease said, is bittersweet.
‘Still See Baby’s Face’
“I still see that baby’s face,” Pease said. “It haunts me sometimes. If this can happen, I wonder what else happens that no one ever knows about.”
What happened eight years ago in the hospital may never be completely known.
Pease contends that the hospital shirked its moral and professional duties by failing to do everything possible to save the infant.
At the time, hospital officials said that no action could have saved the child’s life, and that many of Pease’s allegations of misconduct were related to her own “personal emotional problems.”
The child’s death, however, sparked an intense controversy that eventually led to the suspension of the hospital’s operating license.
A coroner’s inquest conducted in December, 1977, determined that the child died “at the hands of another, other than by accident.” The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against the hospital.
Another Infant Died
That same month another premature infant died at the hospital, prompting a second coroner’s inquest. The inquest determined that the baby’s death was accidental.
Shortly thereafter, the hospital’s license was temporarily suspended by the state Department of Health Services for numerous deficiencies in several areas. The hospital reopened about a month later on probation for three years.
Pease said last week that when she asked other nurses why the tiny baby was on an open counter and not in an incubator, she was told to leave it alone.
But, Pease said, she could not just leave the baby lying there. “You just don’t treat a human being like that. This little baby was left lying on the counter to die in its own agony.”
She placed the baby in an incubator, and within half an hour, Pease said, the child’s breathing was better and her vital signs improved. But little Regina Bommarito, born almost four months premature, died a few hours later.
Attempts to reach the child’s parents, Maula and George Bommarito, for comment on the decision in the Pease suit were unsuccessful.
Hospital officials, at the time of the death, said the baby was “unviable” because it was extremely premature. In newspaper articles published before the inquest, hospital administrator Richard Smith disputed several aspects of Pease’s story, including her statements that the baby had cried. Premature infants such as the Bommarito baby, Smith said, would not be able to cry because their lungs are too underdeveloped.
After the death, Pease wrote an impassioned letter to the hospital’s director of nurses, saying that the incident “physically and mentally makes me sick.” Pease said her complaints were met with coolness, and she became convinced that the hospital was going to do little about them.
Six days after the child died, Pease contacted KABC television and told her story on the evening news. Less than a week later, she was fired.
In court, the hospital contended that Pease’s appearance on the news constituted an unauthorized disclosure of hospital business, and as such was a “major offense” that enabled them to fire her without warning.
“The hospital didn’t follow its own procedure in firing her,” said Nancy Adel, Pease’s attorney. “They were supposed to issue warnings. There was no indication that they did anything but give her the ax.”
Baldwin Park Community Hospital was sold in 1978 by American Medicorp Inc., one of the nation’s largest hospital-management companies, to Humana Inc. It was resold in 1983 to Encino-based Nu-Med Systems and now operates under the name Terrace Plaza Medical Center.
After she was fired, Pease said that she was blacklisted in the hospital community. “I found that I could not find another job. I was going through a period of frustration and I was very worried.”
She said she was also going through a divorce and struggling to support herself and her two children. She finally got a job with the county Health Department, where she stayed for five years. Pease, now remarried and the mother of a third child, is a nurse at West Covina Medical Clinic.
Pease said the jury decision is a victory not just for her, but “a major victory for nurses who may be afraid to stand up for what they think is right.”
But Pease is still troubled, she says, by the ramifications of her outspokenness. It bothers her, she says, that major hospitals appear reluctant to hire her. “How would a big corporation feel,” she said, “when here’s a nurse who blew the whistle on a hospital she worked for? That frightens me.”
But she does not regret what she did. “I just keep thinking that right will always prevail. I could never have lived with myself if I had done what they wanted me to do, if I had just kept quiet.”