© 2023 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Nurse Who Survived Ebola Sues Hospital System

DALLAS — The Dallas hospital that treated the first patient to be diagnosed in the U.S. with Ebola lied to Congress when it said its staff was trained to handle the deadly virus, a nurse who contracted the disease contends in a lawsuit filed Monday.

Nina Pham, who was an intensive care unit nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, says after being told last fall that she would be treating a patient suspected of having Ebola, “the sum total” of information she was given to protect herself was “what her manager ‘Googled’ and printed out from the Internet.”

She says in her lawsuit that the day after getting that information, the patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, tested positive for the disease. Duncan, who contracted Ebola in his native Liberia but started showing symptoms during a trip to the U.S., died at the hospital. Pham, 26, and another nurse who treated Duncan, Amber Vinson, contracted the disease but recovered.

In a statement released through her lawyers, Pham said she felt she had no choice but to sue the hospital’s parent company, Texas Health Resources. “I was hoping that THR would be more open and honest about everything that happened at the hospital, and the things they didn't do that led to me getting infected with Ebola,” she said.

Wendell Watson, a company spokesman, said Texas Health Resources is optimistic that the matter can be resolved. He would not address allegations in the lawsuit about statements a hospital official made to Congress.

The lawsuit describes a chaotic situation at the hospital, where nurses scrambled to decide what kind of personal protective equipment to wear “without any formal guidance or training” from their supervisors. The lawsuit says Texas Health Resources “wholly failed to ensure that appropriate policies, procedures, and equipment were in place.”

Clear drop cloths were taped to the ceiling and walls of the hallway to create a makeshift containment facility, nurses had to dispose of hazardous waste — a job they weren’t trained for — and hazardous material placed in the room next to Duncan's was allowed to pile up, the lawsuit alleges.

On the first day Pham treated Duncan, when Ebola was suspected but not yet diagnosed, she wore a regular isolation gown, double gloves, a surgical mask with a plastic shield and double booties. She says her hair and neck were exposed and that she wasn’t given a change of clothes to wear home, so she went home in the scrubs she wore while treating Duncan.

After his diagnosis, nurses put on hazmat suits with double gloves and added “chemo gloves” and taped them to the suit. They also added a personal respirator they covered with a gown. These decisions, the lawsuit said, were made without any guidance or training by supervisors.

Pham says that after Duncan died, she was told that what she had worn was safe and that she had no risk of contracting Ebola. Confident in what hospital officials told her, she spent time with friends and family.

Pham also accuses Dr. Daniel Varga, the chief clinical officer and a senior executive vice president for Texas Health Resources, of making “numerous patently false statements” in testimony he gave to a congressional subcommittee. She says he falsely claimed that the hospital was trained to manage Ebola and that he misrepresented the type of protective equipment that nurses wore while caring for Duncan.

Varga testified that as the Ebola epidemic worsened over the summer, the hospital system began educating doctors, nurses and other staff on symptoms and risk factors. He said that included directing all hospitals to have a plan on how to care for patients with Ebola-like symptoms.

A hospital statement from Oct. 1, 2014, the day after Duncan tested positive, stated it had “a robust infection control system and our staff is trained and prepared to take care of patients with a variety of infectious diseases,” including Ebola.

Pham’s allegations echo those of other nurses. Nurse Briana Aguirre told NBC’s “Today” show in the fall that when their infectious disease department was asked about protocol, the response was that they didn't know and would get back to them. National Nurses United, the nation’s largest nurse's union, said in the fall that staff treated Duncan for days without the correct protective gear, that hazardous waste piled up and that protocols constantly changed.

In her lawsuit, Pham says she is worried about her long-term health and that she doubts she’ll ever return to being a critical care nurse again because of the stress and anxiety of the trauma she experienced and the “fear and stigma” that follow her.

Vinson’s attorney, Steve Malouf, said he had no comment on whether or not Vinson also planned to sue the hospital system. (AP)