'It’s wild': Black nurse sues hospital after she was targeted with unjust criminal charges

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A Black nurse is suing a hospital about 15 miles east of Denver in the city of Aurora after she says she was discriminated against and targeted with a manslaughter charge for doing her job and even going above and beyond what was required of her. DonQuenick Joppy named the Medical Center of Aurora (TMCA); HealthONE, which owns the medical center; and employees at the center, Katie Weihe and Bonnie Andrews, in a lawsuit filed April 22.

Ultimately, the charges Joppy faced in connection with the death of a 94-year-old patient in 2019—“manslaughter, negligent death of an at-risk person and neglect of an at-risk”—were dropped by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office “in the interest of justice,” according to a motion The Denver Post obtained. “It’s wild,” Joppy said in an interview the newspaper cited. “My life has been turned upside down … I never killed anyone. I’m a great nurse.”

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Spelled out in Joppy’s complaint:

1. During her employment with TMCA Ms. Joppy, a Black nurse, was subjected to verbal and nonverbal slights or microagressions designed to marginalize, segregate and undermine her based on stereotypical and harmful views of Black professionals.

2. TMCA unlawfully denied Ms. Joppy training and transfer opportunities, refused to investigate her complaints of race discrimination, placed her on an unwarranted Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”), isolated her from colleagues, then ultimately terminated her employment because of her race and because she engaged in protected activity.

3. In a final blow to Ms. Joppy, in an effort to have her professional nursing license revoked and end her career, TMCA, Andrews and Weihe, in a “take no prisoners” approach, maliciously caused felony manslaughter charges to be brought against Ms. Joppy for the death of a patient known to have died from natural causes.

Joppy was terminated on June 4, 2019 after working for the hospital for two years and receiving an Excellence Award from the American Heart Association for performing CPR and saving a patient’s life her first year on the job. She also received a positive performance review for her work from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018, according to the suit.

“In spite of the positive performance review, patient care comments and other awards and accolades, Ms. Joppy’s treatment by the overwhelmingly non-Black management in the ICU was racially biased and on many occasions the Charge Nurses would publicly and openly yell at Ms. Joppy undermining her in a humiliating and demeaning manner,” Joppy’s attorney stated in the suit. “None of the non-Black nurses were treated in this manner.”

In the incident that led to Joppy’s termination, she was told to make room in an understaffed intensive care unit for a critically ill patient dying in the hospital’s emergency room, according to the suit. Joppy hadn’t cared for the patient before but she was assigned as his nurse before her shift’s end at 7 AM, her attorney spelled out in the suit.

According to the complaint, when the doctor ordered Joppy verbally to prepare the patient for “versed and morphine” and to assume “end of life” measures, Joppy contacted the respiratory therapist on duty to carry out the doctor’s order.

When the therapist arrived, he told Joppy he was busy and would give her directions for turning off the ventilator, which she followed, according to the suit. The therapist returned later to disconnect the patient’s ventilator, and he died of “septic shock due to pneumonia and bowel infarction; acute renal failure,” according to the death certificate cited in the lawsuit.  

A supervising nurse who, according to the suit, showed animosity to Joppy in the past questioned how she responded in the incident, sparking the hospital’s investigation. It ultimately determined that it was “standard practice for nurses to ensure orders are being followed as received and entered” and “no order was placed into the chart until after the patient had deceased.”

The hospital also claimed Joppy should have waited for the respiratory therapist to disconnect the ventilator, and the medical center even cited as grounds for her termination, “staying after her assigned shift continuing to provide care to the patient unnecessarily”—a common practice of nurses, according to the suit.

Rachel Robinson, a spokesperson for the medical center, tried to dismiss Joppy’s allegations in a statement The Denver Post obtained on Tuesday.

“The lawsuit that has been filed against The Medical Center of Aurora is without merit and is a tactic by a disgruntled former colleague,” she said in the statement.

Jennifer Robinson, Joppy’s attorney, told The Denver Post Joppy has struggled to find stable housing and ceased work as a nurse, although her license is active.

“I took this case on because I thought it was particularly egregious that they would do this to someone’s life,” Robinson said. “She’s pretty much homeless now and hasn’t recovered since all of this happened. Who is going to hire a nurse who has manslaughter charges against her, even if they are dropped? It’s just not cool to treat people this way.”