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  • Writer's pictureDavid N. Damick

EVEN AFTER KNOWING THEY ABUSED OR ASSAULTED PATIENTS, HOSPITALS PUT OFFENDERS BACK IN PATIENT CARE

Illinois Law: The Only Source for Fair Medical Treatment is Through Lawsuits

 

EVEN AFTER KNOWING THEY ABUSED OR ASSAULTED PATIENTS,

HOSPITALS PUT OFFENDERS BACK IN PATIENT CARE

“If they just would have believed me, this wouldn't have happened to another woman."

 

At a time when we need trust in our medical providers most, an investigation by The Chicago Tribune found that some of the most established and well-known Illinois health systems have allowed workers accused of abusing patients to continue providing care, allowing them to continue abusing additional patients (Chicago Tribune Report Here).

 

Although most such events are kept hidden, in this investigation the Chicago Tribune found more than 50 health care workers accused of sexual misconduct with patients over the last 10 years – and 27 of those faced allegations from multiple patients. The true numbers are certain to be much higher since many allegations or assaults are not reported. The findings of this report, only some of which are discussed here, are extremely disturbing, and they clearly show that government oversight has no real ability to stop these practices. For patients, the only way to influence the behavior of hospital and nursing home administers is through civil lawsuits.

 

Examples of wanton abuse destroying women’s lives is widespread. Dozens of women have alleged that former gynecologist Dr. Fabio Ortega sexually assaulted them during exams over three decades while the health system allowed him to continue working. Dr. Ortega was allowed to continue practicing even after receiving complaints from patients for thirty years and even after the hospital knew police were investigating him in relation to those complaints. That doctor has now pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two patients, and he has been sued - along with his former employers, NorthShore University HealthSystem (now known as Endeavor) - by at least 30 women.

 

The story doesn’t end with one bad doctor. Women told the Tribune they suffered for years after they were abused by medical providers across different health care systems. For instance:

            - At Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview, nurse David Giurgiu had a heavily medicated, 76-year-old patient perform oral sex on him from her hospital bed while she was there for a broken femur.

            - When a woman came to the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute complaining of hip and groin pain, X-ray technician Karol Ruszczyk put his hand between her legs, touching her vaginal area over her clothes.

            - At Chicago's Jackson Park Hospital and Medical Center, a patient reported in October 2016 that worker Titus Snelling rolled her wheelchair into an elevator and, when they were alone, began kissing her.

 

The victims complained to the hospitals and health care systems that employed the workers. All three of those systems allowed the employees to continue working. And all three workers were later charged with abusing additional patients, while the effects of the assaults on the victims sometimes destroyed their lives. While some medical systems in other states have reckoned publicly with their failures, Illinois health care providers have quietly settled lawsuits, entered into confidentiality agreements with patients and often refused to acknowledge wrongdoing.

 

State laws and government do little to hold providers accountable or enforce reporting laws

The Chicago Tribune investigation found that efforts by state government to hold providers accountable have fallen short, largely leaving hospital systems to decide on their own how to balance patient safety with their reputations and financial interests. Loopholes in state laws leave many providers without meaningful oversight, other laws lack teeth, and one law that would help document and track adverse events at hospitals has yet to be implemented 16 years after its introduction.

 

Although reporting of allegations of sexual abuse is technically required under Illinois law, there are no strong penalties if hospitals do not report to the State, and few incentives to do so. There are regulations indicating that a health system should act by “removing suspected violators from further patient contact,” but this often does not happen and there are no consequences to inaction – except, of course, for the next victims.

 

For example:

- When Rush University Medical Center fired nurse Thomas Trunk in 2016 after a patient alleged sexually inappropriate conduct, it notified the state agency that had the power to take action against the nurse's license. But the hospital did not notify the Illinois Department of Public Health, the agency that could have investigated Rush's response to the allegations. Trunk was later convicted of battery after a home health care patient accused him of sexual abuse, in a separate incident.

- When a female patient reported that nurse-technician Titus Snelling he began making advances and kissing her neck while he was supposed to be wheeling her to her room, Jackson Park hospital did not report the allegation to the Department of Public Health, and Snelling continued to work with patients. About four months after that incident, Snelling rolled another patient to a dark room in an unused part of the hospital, inappropriately touched her under her gown and put his mouth on her toes, prosecutors said. That nurse-technician was found guilty of aggravated kidnapping.

- In the case at Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview, even though the nurses noted in the record that the victim was weeping uncontrollably after reporting the assault of nurse Girugu, they hid the facts by just noting she “reported an alleged event” earlier. Instead of investigating, the hospital put her on suicide watch. When her daughter went to the police, the hospital did a cursory “investigation” and reported that nothing had happened. And she was “devastated” years later when it was learned that the same nurse who had abused her had been accused of abusing another patient in the same system, less than a year later. The male nurse eventually admitted to both those assaults as well as a third one.

 

Hospitals are able to protect their patients, but they defensively act instead to protect their income streams and “reputations” by denial and hiding defects. A hospital employee can easily be re-assigned or restricted in duties with female patients, or require them to work with a chaperone. The fact is that patients in hospitals or nursing facilities in particular have an expectation that the system is designed to help and support them and that there will be strong oversight. As quoted by the newspaper, Illinois Rep. Kelly Cassidy noted that when that accountability is lacking, it is “doubly disappointing.” “You would hope that a hospital organization or health care provider organization would be more invested in rooting out bad apples,” Cassidy said. "As we've seen in the priesthood and school systems and police departments, it's easier to just hide bad behavior and hope it goes away.”

 

There is little to no transparency, and almost no accountability for these hospital systems that are more and more being taken over by private investors. 19 years ago, in 2005, Illinois legislators passed a bill meant to address so-called “never events”: unthinkable incidents such as leaving an item inside the body during surgery, or the sexual abuse of a patient, setting up a reporting system for these things that should “never” be allowed to occur. But Illinois still has not even created a reporting system.

 

Other states have done so. However, even when there is a report of patient abuse – even severe abuse – there is little action taken by the state, other than to ask for a promise from the hospital that it will do better next time. For instance, last year, the Illinois Department of Public Health found that Ascension Mercy hospital in Aurora had failed to protect its patients from abuse. The agency's investigation involved a case in which three adolescent girls reported to hospital staff that a doctor had touched them inappropriately. The hospital put him into the hospital's nursery to care for younger patients, state records show. The hospital later told the health department: “Retrospectively, (the doctor) should've been removed from service at the hospital, including the nursery, during the investigation.” Yet the hospital faced few significant consequences for the error. Although the state health department placed Ascension Mercy hospital in “immediate

jeopardy,” a distinction that had the potential to cost the hospital millions in lost Medicare dollars, the sanction lasted only one day, and the state dropped the jeopardy ruling after the hospital developed a “plan.”

 

Non-hospital health care systems face even less oversight

Health care systems and providers that are not hospitals are subject to even less state oversight. There is no requirement that non-hospital medical offices and clinics investigate or work

to understand how the misconduct was able to occur or how to prevent similar situations in the future. And the examples of abuse are many.

 

In once case, a woman had been a patient for two decades at the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute, a large orthopedic group practice, when she went to an institute facility in Morton Grove to be seen for a knee injury in March 2018. During her appointment, X-ray technician Karol Ruszczyk began rubbing the inside of her thigh and touched the outside of her vagina, she told police. While Morton Grove police were investigating, they discovered from Ruszczyk's personnel file that he had been accused of a similar incident 16 days earlier. Police contacted the previous patient, who said she had gone to an Illinois Bone & Joint Institute office in Des Plaines for help with hip and groin pain when Ruszczyk began touching her inappropriately. Ruszczyk would go on to plead guilty in 2019 to aggravated criminal sexual abuse of both patients and was sentenced to 24 months of probation.

 

The Illinois Bone & Joint Institute and Ruszczyk reached a settlement with the second patient, who contended in a lawsuit that the institute had failed to prevent her abuse because it took no action in response to the earlier allegation other than making a note in Ruszczyk's file. But the state health department never investigated the institute's handling of these incidents - it is not responsible for doing so. The institute is not a hospital, so it was not even required to report the patient’s allegation to the state health department, a loophole that also applies to places such as independent clinics and doctors’ offices.

 

In another example, in 2016, Dr. Sheldon Levine began conducting a breast exam where he aggressively rubbed the patient's nipples and exposed his penis to the patient before she fled from the exam room at MedPlus S.C. clinic offices in Hazel Crest, according to court records. The patient reported the assault to the police, the doctor was charged, he was indefinitely suspended from the practice, and later was found guilty of battery and public indecency. Testimony at a later civil trial showed that another patient had reported to police that Levine had touched her inappropriately about six months earlier. The clinic administrator acknowledged that the clinic made little effort to understand how the incidents were able to happen, aside from asking staff whether anyone else had been in the room during the appointment that led to the criminal conviction and whether the patient had complained. “Whatever happened is not my problem,” the administrator testified, acknowledging that he didn’t ever try to contact the victim either, stating that “there was no reason for me to interfere, to call after what happened. It's not my duty, it's not my job to do.”

 

In a third case in 2022, a patient at a different Endeavor facility, Highland Park Hospital, alleged that a male nurse had touched her inappropriately following a breast reduction surgery, according to police records. But the hospital did not report the complaint to the state health department at all, state officials confirmed. According to a police report, Highland Park Hospital conducted a 24-hour investigation on the nurse's day off and told police a familiar story: that the nurse was doing a head-to-toe skin assessment and the nurse had said that if he made contact near her vaginal area, it was accidental, according to the police report.

 

In an emailed statement regarding these cases, Endeavor said it is required to report “only substantiated reasonable allegations of abuse” to the state's health department and it relies on police investigators’ determinations of whether allegations are “unfounded.” This is defense lawyer nonsense. The law requires any hospital employee who has “reasonable cause to believe that any patient with whom he or she has direct contact has been subjected to abuse in the hospital” must report those allegations to a designated administrator, who then is required to notify the state. The law does not require that allegations first be “substantiated.”

 

The long-term impacts of the abuse patients suffered cannot be overstated. The patient who was assaulted by emergency department nurse Giurgiu at Glenbrook Hospital - also part of Endeavor Health - was afraid of being in any room alone after the abuse, according to her daughter. She wouldn't sleep in her own bed. Her daughter told the paper "She was a very strong-willed person who just started crumbling." This victim was quoted as just repeating “I just want to die, I just want to die.” The patient who came forward about the Highland Park Hospital nurse said she also remains haunted by the incident. “Is this how my life is going to be for the rest of my life, that I don't trust anyone?” she wonders.

 

The frustration of patient-victims is rooted in more than just that the health system does not protect them – it actively covers up allegations, and this lives with them for life. “It's sad and ridiculous that it has to take so many victims before they'll believe them,” the Highland Park victim said.

 

If you or a loved one has suffered from abuse similar to that described here, we want to help you.

Our office has reported previously on very similar assaults and denials by the Veterans Administration hospitals. We investigate all such claims sympathetically and as thoroughly as the law allows throughout Illinois, Missouri, and nationally.

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