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September 5, 2017

A nurse was arrested for protecting an unconscious patient's rights. Here's how her hospital is responding.

Daily Briefing

    The University of Utah Hospital has implemented new policies that bar officers from direct contact with nurses after a police officer placed a hospital nurse at under arrest for refusing to permit a blood draw from an unconscious patient.

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    The blood draw, if it had occurred, would have violated hospital policy and according to experts likely would have been illegal.

    According to the New York Times, the incident was filmed via the body cameras of police officers involved in the incident.

    Incident details

    On July 26, Salt Lake City Police Officer Jeff Payne demanded a blood draw from an unconscious patient to determine whether the patient had "any chemical substances in his system" at the time of a car crash that Payne was investigating. According to a report Payne filed over the incident, the patient had been flown to the hospital for burn treatment following the crash, which occurred when another driver who was fleeing police collided with the patient's tractor trailer. The fleeing driver was killed.

    Alex Wubbels, a nurse who has worked at the hospital since 2009, refused Payne's request, citing hospital policies and saying she was following the law. Wubbels said the request did not meet specific criteria: The patient was not under arrest, and the police did not have a warrant or the patient's consent.

    According to Modern Healthcare, the Supreme Court has held that police must have a warrant to test blood of motorists suspected of drunken driving—and the patient involved in the incident was not even considered a suspect in any crime, the Washington Post's "Morning Mix" reports.

    Wubbels added that she contacted several hospital administrators over the matter, and they supported her position. Wubbels told Payne, "I'm just being told what to do by my entire hospital."

    Payne accused Wubbels of interfering with an investigation, New York Times reports, and threatened to arrest her if he did not "get to get the blood." Wubbels then asked her boss, Brad Wiggins, to speak to Payne, who told him that he was "making a huge mistake" by threatening a nurse.

    Payne responded by saying, "We're done," and began taking Wubbels into custody. According to body camera video obtained from Payne after the incident, Wubbels screamed, "Help me. Stop. You're assaulting me. Stop. I've done nothing wrong. This is crazy" as Payne forced her into an unmarked car.

    Another officer arrived and accused Wubbels of obstructing justice. She told him, "I'm ... obligated to my patients," adding, "It's not up to me."  According to the Times, Wubbels was in handcuffs for about 20 minutes before being released.

    'Any nurse, I think, would have done exactly what I did'

    Wubbels, who had requested and obtained a copy of the body camera footage, said she opted to release the footage on Thursday—after consulting with her attorney, the hospital, and police officials—in order to educate medical professionals and the police and to "open a civic dialogue."

    According to "Morning Mix," Wubbels returned to work on the burn unit about a week and a half after the incident. Reflecting on the incident, Wubbels said, "I stood my ground. I stood for what was right, which was to protect the patient," adding, "Any nurse, I think, would have done exactly what I did."

    Officials admonish officer's actions

    The Salt Lake City Police Department Chief Mike Brown in a statement Friday said he was alarmed by what he saw in footage of the incident. "I want to be clear, we take this very seriously," Brown said, adding, "Within 24 hours of this incident, Salt Lake City Police Department took steps to ensure this will never happen again." According to Brown, officers will have to complete de-escalation training.

    In a statement Friday, the police department also said it was conducting a criminal investigation into the situation. The police department said two employees had been placed on leave. 

    Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski also issued an apology for incident. In a statement, she said the city's Civilian Review Board is investigating the incident as well.

    Kathy Wilets, a spokesperson for University of Utah, said the system is "proud of [Wubbel's] decision to focus first and foremost on the care and well-being of her patient." Willets continued, "She followed procedures and protocols in this matter and was acting in her patient's best interest."

    Hospital implements new policy; others may follow, experts say

    Gordon Crabtree, the hospital's interim CEO, said he was "deeply troubled" by how Wubbels was treated. He noted, "This will not happen again" and praised Wubbels for "putting her own safety at risk" to "protect the rights of patients."

    Following the incident, and before the footage was publicly released, the University of Utah Hospital has imposed new restrictions on law enforcement, "Morning Mix" reports. Under the new policy, officers are not allowed in patient care areas and are not to have direct contact with nurses. Instead of interacting with nurses when they have a request, officers will register at the front desk and work with "house supervisors," according to University of Utah CNO Margaret Pearce.

    According to Pearce, the new policy will ensure nurses can focus entirely on patient care without fearing interruption (Mele/Victor, New York Times, 9/1; Barbash/Hawkins, "Morning Mix," Washington Post, 9/5, Meyer, Modern Healthcare, 9/4).

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