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"How did accused nurse keep getting hired?"

Original source:

The Bakersfield Californian

BY STACEY SHEPARD, Californian staff writer | Thursday, Feb 19 2009 8:43 PM

Gwen Hughes was fired from two nursing facilities for over-drugging patients yet landed a job at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield and to this day has a clean nursing record.

How did Hughes - facing criminal charges in the deaths of three local nursing home patients - keep getting hired?

Interviews with health care regulators and a former employer Thursday showed privacy laws kept her in nursing despite the firings, the result of twice being implicated in state investigations for over-drugging elderly patients.

"Unfortunately, the way things are these days, you can't give out any information," said Michael Fellens, administrator of the Sunnyside Convalescent Home in Fresno, who fired Hughes from there in 1999. "It's kind of a sad thing but if someone calls for a reference, all you can really give out is the dates they worked here and if they're eligible for rehire."

It's public now. Hughes, a pharmacist and a physician who worked at the Kern Valley Healthcare District's skilled nursing facility are scheduled to be arraigned today on charges they overmedicated patients, leading to three deaths. They declined interview requests.

Threats kept the truth about what happened at Kern Valley from coming out sooner, said Tish Orr, a registered nurse there for 25 years.

When nurses objected to patients receiving heavy doses, Orr said, Hughes threatened to fire them or have their licenses revoked.

"We were so cowed and threatened with losing our jobs and our licenses that after a while we just shut our mouths and did what we had to do," Orr said.

Nurses who worked under Hughes at the Sunnyside Convalescent Home in Fresno in the late 1990s described a similar situation, Fellen said.

"She would go up to (a nurse) and basically force them to write an order (for medications)," he said. "She threatened to fire them. She could be very intimidating."

Hughes was fired as nursing director there in 1999 after a state investigation revealed her role in overmedicating patients.

She was hired in Kern Valley in 2006. After being terminated from that job, she briefly worked at Mercy Hospitals.

Mercy officials declined to discuss her employment.

There are no blemishes on Hughes' nursing record. The Board of Registered Nursing said it will now act to suspend Hughes' license.

Fellen said he wanted to report Hughes to the state but he lacked evidence.

"They could never pin anything on her because it was never in her handwriting," he said.

Secrecy continued Thursday when the Department of Public Health said privacy laws preclude it from divulging whether it reported Hughes' drugging of Fresno and Lake Isabella patients to the Board of Registered Nursing.

"Getting into that information would be a violation of their rights," said spokesman Ralph Montano.

Montano did say the department reports licensed health care professionals to appropriate authorities when they've acted outside their license.

Nursing board officials said they needed to research whether it received complaints about Hughes.

Orr said Hughes' arrest was a relief but the charges against facility pharmacist Debbi Hayes and physician Hoshang Pormir weren't fair.

Pormir cared about the residents but was "overwhelmed" with his other district duties, Orr said.

Orr said she wasn't going to speak publicly about what happened then thought "maybe that's what people need to do is talk more."