Nina Pham, the nurse who contracted Ebola after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, filed a negligence lawsuit against Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital’s parent company, Texas Health Resources, on March 4th. The lawsuit claims Pham was “a symbol of corporate neglect — a casualty of a hospital system’s failure to prepare for a known and impending medical crisis.”
Thomas Eric Duncan
Nina Pham was the first person to contract the Ebola virus in the United States while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan. Duncan was the first person diagnosed in the U.S. He was initially sent home from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on September 24 after complaining of “abdominal pain, dizziness, nausea and headache.” Though he displayed signs of the virus, the hospital failed to ask him about his travel history. He had just recently moved to the U.S. from Liberia, one of the country’s hardest hit with the Ebola virus epidemic. Duncan was able to enter the country because he lied about his history of contact with the disease on an airport questionnaire prior to boarding a flight to Brussels. He arrived in Dallas, Texas on September 20, 2014.
Just prior to leaving Liberia, on September 15, 2014, the family of Marthalene Williams, was not able to get an ambulance to transfer Williams to a hospital. She was pregnant at the time. Duncan, a tenant of the family, helped transfer Williams to an Ebola treatment ward via taxi. Duncan later claimed he believed Williams was having a miscarriage and was unaware that he had been exposed to the Ebola virus. Williams later died of the virus.
A few days after being sent home from Texas Health Presbyterian, when Duncan’s condition worsened, he was transported back to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital’s emergency room by ambulance. Within fifteen minutes of that visit on September 28, a doctor noted Duncan’s recent move from Liberia. The doctor immediately directed the hospital to follow “strict C.D.C. protocol,” which included all attendants wear masks, gowns, and gloves. Duncan was officially diagnosed with the Ebola virus on September 30, 2014. He died on October 8.
Nina Pham Contracts Ebola
On October 10, after complaining of a low-grade fever, 26-year-old nurse Nina Pham was placed in isolation. She had treated Duncan. On October 11, she tested positive for the Ebola virus. On October 12, the CDC confirmed the positive test results, making Pham the first person to contract the virus in the U.S.
She recalls the first moment of having learned she too had contracted the disease, “The CDC doctor and my chief nursing officer came in the room in full hazmat gear. And I could tell from their eyes being red from crying that the news was not good,” she said. “I thought it was a death sentence; flashbacks to Mr. Duncan’s disease and how it progressed eventually to his death came to mind.”
After being kept in isolation and treated, she was cleared of the virus and released on October 24.
The Ebola virus is deadly. Though five strains of the virus exist, four can make people sick. Once the virus enters the body it kills cells often by causing them to explode. The virus attacks the immune system, causes internal bleeding, and damages almost every organ. The disease is highly contagious and is spread through people’s body fluids such as blood, stool, vomit, semen, urine, sweat, tears, and breast milk. Initial symptoms are similar to flu symptoms: sudden fever, feeling tired, muscle pains, headache, and sore throat. As the disease progresses, it causes vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and bruising or bleeding without an injury, like from the eyes or gums.
Treatment of Ebola Virus
There are no drugs to fight the virus. Because of that health care teams must treat the person’s symptoms and offer basic support care. This means:
- Keeping the person hydrated with fluids through an IV.
- Giving oxygen.
- Maintaining a patient’s blood pressure.
- Treating any other infections they have.
Survival is completely dependent on how well a patient’s immune system works. Because of this, the sooner a patient receives medical care, the better his or her chances are for survival.
Pham says she “had no choice” but to sue Texas Health Resources (THR). The lawsuit alleges that the medical staff were not properly trained for treating the Ebola virus. According to her statement, “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. But that didn’t happen and I felt I was left with no choice but to turn to the courts for help.”
The documents filed in court claim THR did not heed the warnings about Ebola, and that its chief medical officer “made numerous patently false statements to Congress.” The documents go on to claim the hospital “wholly failed to ensure that appropriate polices, procedures, and equipment were in place." In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Pham said THR was negligent when it came to developing policies to train its staff for being able to treat Ebola. At the time Duncan was diagnosed, the company did not have the proper protective gear available for those who treated him. Pham was frightened when Duncan’s tests results confirmed he had the virus.
“I was the last person beside Mr. Duncan to find out he was positive,” she told The Dallas Morning News. “You’d think the primary nurse would be the first to know.”
The lawsuit states: “In a cruel twist, after watching Mr. Duncan go through the horrific and painful course of the disease as she desperately tried to save his life, Nina herself was diagnosed with Ebola just two days after Mr. Duncan’s life was taken by it.”
Wendell Watson, a spokesman for THR, declined to address Pham’s allegations, but provided this statement: “Nina Pham bravely served Texas Health Dallas during a most difficult time. We continue to support and wish the best for her, and we remain optimistic that constructive dialogue can resolve this matter.”
A negligence lawsuit can be brought when a person believes another person or legal party failed to use reasonable caution and thus caused damage to a victim. These types of cases are often brought against medical professionals, or in this case, medical companies, when a professional or company fails to provide adequate care or service. It is essential that a victim be able to prove that harm was caused to them due to the standard of service she or he received.
Neglect for Thomas Eric Duncan
The lawsuit also includes accusations of neglect for initially discharging Thomas Eric Duncan after the patient had shown signs consistent with the Ebola virus.
“Had THR heeded the CDC and other warnings and ensured its hospitals were ready for Ebola, Mr. Duncan would have had the best opportunity to possibly survive,” it says.
Jut after Duncan passed away, his family claimed the care Duncan received was, at best, “incompetent” and at worst “racially motivated.” The hospital responded with this statement: “Our care team provided Mr. Duncan with the same high level of attention and care that would be given any patient, regardless of nationality or ability to pay for care. We have a long history of treating a multicultural community in this area.”
Nurses as Patients
According to the Associated Press, Pham is also requesting unspecified damages for physical pain and mental anguish, medical expenses, and loss of future earnings. She claims she still suffers trauma as a result of the entire situation in the form of body aches and insomnia. “The fact is, I’m facing a number of issues with regard to my health and my career and the lawsuit provides a way to address them,” said Pham. “But more importantly, it will help uncover the truth of what happened, and educate all health care providers and administrators about ways to be better prepared for the next public health emergency. She admits that people are still afraid of coming into contact with her - even after having been declared as free of the virus.
Her goal in filing the lawsuit is to “make hospitals and big corporations realize that nurses and health care workers, especially front line people, are important. And we don’t want nurses to start turning into patients.”
Pham had his to say regarding Duncan: “I particularly want to express my continued sympathy to the family of Mr. Duncan, as it was my privilege to care for him. I also want to acknowledge my fellow nurses, and the many friends, family and strangers for their ongoing concern and support.”
Fox News, Nurse infected by Ebola sues Texas hospital, March 2, 2015
LawDictionary, What Is a Negligence Lawsuit?, 2015
WebMD, Ebola Virus Infection FAQ, March 3, 2015
WebProNews, Nina Pham, the Nurse Who Survived Ebola, Says She ‘Had No Choice’ But to Sue Hospital, March 8, 2015
WFAA, Nina Pham: ‘I thought it was a death sentence’, December 10, 2014
Wikipedia, Thomas Eric Duncan, 2015