Experts aiding hospital with patient care issues

Two experts in preparing hospitals for inspections are working at the state mental hospital in Goldsboro to help remedy problems exposed when one of its doctors hit a teenage patient and a man died after sitting in a chair for more than 22 hours without food.

Cherry Hospital has about two weeks to show how it will correct problems cited in an investigative report to avoid federal sanctions.

The federal government told the hospital its federal funding is in jeopardy after investigators faulted Cherry for an incident in which a doctor struck a teenager, Ricky Luciano, in a tussle over a T-shirt on April 28.

Investigators said staff did not use proper techniques to prevent an escalation of the teenager's behavior, did not tell the boy's mother about an investigation into an allegation of staff abuse, and did not tell the N.C. Medical Board that the doctor's privileges had been suspended. The doctor, Ralph Berg, returned to work.

In a separate incident, investigators found that Cherry staff neglected Steven Sabock, 50, who died of a heart condition April 29 after a day without food. Sabock sat in a heavily used room in the hospital where staff watched television and played cards but failed to take his vital signs and give him fluids as a doctor ordered.

The hospital's security video recorded Sabock's care from April 28, when he choked on his medicine while a nurse stood by without helping him, and through his day without food until his death from a heart problem. Health care technicians, according to the report, are seen on the recording watching television, playing cards, and talking on a cell phone while in the room with Sabock.

Technicians could not get Sabock to walk back to his bed after his time sitting, so they stood him up, pushed a chair under him and slid Sabock down the hall toward his bedroom. The video showed a cart of emergency equipment being pushed down the hall about five minutes later.

The report said Sabock sat in a busy part of the hospital through four work shifts.

“It is a serious event, and we're taking it seriously,” said Jim Osberg, head of the state Department of Health and Human Services team that oversees state institutions. “We are very concerned that an incident like this would have occurred. Our deepest concern is about patient care.”

In a statement, DHHS secretary Dempsey Benton said: “Disciplinary actions have been taken to emphasize that attentive, quality patient care is the essential responsibility for every employee in the hospital.”

Osberg said he could not provide information on disciplinary actions because they are personnel matters.

Vicki Smith, executive director of the advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina, said the incidents highlight the state's hesitation to fire people when appropriate, because it is afraid of losing employees who hold hard-to-fill jobs.