Hospital death is appalling, intolerable

Seeking help at a mental health facility should not be a death sentence. But that's what it was for Steven H. Sabock.

In April staffers at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro let Mr. Sabock die as he sat in a chair for more than 22 hours without food or other aid. Earlier, he'd choked on medicine while a nurse stood by without helping him, leaving it to a health care technician to save him after he fell and hit his head. Nurses then failed to report the choking to a supervisor and failed to check on him afterward. He died as staffers played cards, watched television and talked on a cell phone in the same room.

The incident is tragic, appalling and criminal. The Cherry staffers involved, the N.C. mental health system and state leaders failed Mr. Sabock and his family. All must be held accountable for his death.

The negligence in this case, laid out in an investigative report released Monday, is eye-popping. It is played out in graphic detail in a hospital security video that captured much of the sequence of events.

Problems at Cherry, at Broughton Hospital in Morganton and with the state's mental health programs are no secret. Last fall, Gov. Mike Easley picked Dempsey Benton as secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to address concerns about bungled patient care, mismanagement and fragmentation of services. The federal government halted Medicare and Medicaid payments at Broughton and threatened to pull funding from Cherry.

Cherry now has less than two weeks to come up with an improvement plan or face losing federal money. The findings about Mr. Sabock's death are among the reasons federal officials cited.

The report contends that Cherry staffers disregarded their own standards and policies for care. They failed to follow doctor's orders to give Mr. Sabock fluids every two hours and check his vital signs every six hours. This was not a problem of inadequate resources and staffing. Staffers were on the job. They just didn't do their jobs.

Mr. Sabock's wife has consulted a lawyer, and well she should. Regardless, the state must more aggressively tackle this issue and change some things at Cherry now. Some of the employees involved should no longer be working there. The cavalier attitude about patient care, as shown in the video, is unacceptable. Everyone from the leadership on down should be held accountable.

In January, Mr. Benton said his department has “to restore the public's faith in our facilities.” He hasn't done so yet. This report will terrify anyone who has a family member in a state mental health hospital. Mr. Sabock's death is a stark illustration of the jeopardy they face.

Such negligence is intolerable. N.C. lawmakers and health officials must put in place policies, procedures and staff to better protect vulnerable patients from harm.