Opinion: Do the Right Thing

When Anne Mitchell was found not guilty of all charges last month by a Texas jury, I cheered with many of you who had been watching the Winkler County case closely. Maybe some of you have been contemplating similar action and wondered what price you’d pay for patient advocacy and truth telling.

Mitchell was facing a third-degree felony charge of misuse of official information after she and fellow nurse Vickilyn Galle sent a letter to the Texas Board of Medicine reporting unsafe practice by Rolando G. Arafiles Jr., a local physician. They were convinced his patients were in jeopardy. Fearing recrimination, they bypassed hospital administration and went straight to the medical board. Criminal charges against Galle were dismissed shortly before the trial.

How an anonymous letter written by nurses who wanted to do the right thing — follow the profession’s code of ethics and abide by Texas’ Nurse Practice Act — led to a felony charge is a long story. You can read the details of the case online at the Texas Nurses Association’s Web site — Texasnurses.org.

The felony aspect is unusual, but I’m sure many of you have faced similar situations in your practice. “Brent’s Law,” Nurse.com’s column on legal issues, confirms this, which you can view at Nurse.com/asktheexperts/brentslaw.

In this issue’s cover story, we feature some common questions and scenarios posed to “Brent’s Law” columnist Nancy Brent, RN, JD, for her comments. One situation mirrors the dilemma Mitchell and Galle faced. Brent makes it clear she is not offering legal advice, but answering questions about the law. In the situation mentioned in the story and many like it, she often advises nurses to seek out an attorney.

Brent’s words bring me back to the Winkler case. Now that Mitchell has been acquitted, the case could become an object lesson and an inspiration for all of us. For example, it teaches us the system does work when we advocate for patients. It reminds us that we have expert knowledge and must use it to protect patients and families.

At the same time, the case certainly urges us to become aware of the potential legal consequences of our actions. In some situations, we might want to seek legal counsel from a professional organization, hospital or private attorney before we move forward. The lives of Mitchell and Galle were disrupted for months. They wrote the letter in early 2009, and the case went to trial in February 2010. Both nurses were fired from their jobs at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, Texas, where each had practiced for more than 20 years, according to the TNA Web site.

The case also reminds us that our profession demands not only commitment, compassion and competence, but also courage. Despite fear and self-doubt, we must take the risks necessary to protect our patients and constantly advocate for their rights, health and safety.

I salute Mitchell and Galle for their courage and perseverance. Their actions set an example for all of us. They followed their consciences and were faithful to the mantle of trust the public has laid upon our shoulders.

Judith Mitiguy, RN, MS, is Executive Vice President, Nursing Communications & Initiatives for Nursing Spectrum.

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