HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Moving a parent into an assisted care facility can be a tough decision. But what should you consider before you make such a move?
Whistleblowers at a facility in Hendersonville are now speaking out after a resident died from a nasty fall. These former employees say what happened was wrong and they don't want it to happen to anyone else.
Joyce Myers had Alzheimer's but by all accounts was full of life. They say 88-year-old was a spunky woman who loved to make people laugh until one night in late January at the Hickory Hills Alzheimer's Special Care Center in Hendersonville.
Carlee Willis was one of the charge nurses on duty.
"I was not prepared for what I walked into," Willis told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Willis was nearing the end of her shift when she heard a call for help. She rushed to Myers' room where the elderly woman had been found on the floor of her bathroom, moaning and barely conscious.
"The left side of her face was completely purple, eyes were black. There was like a pocket where blood had pooled. And I knew then that she had a brain bleed," Willis recalled.
Myers also had two broken hips. She was rushed to the hospital, but never regained consciousness. She was then taken back to Hickory Hills essentially to die. And five days later, she passed away, something, Willis believes, could have been prevented.
"That woman shouldn't have died," Willis said.
Now Willis and Kay Holmes, another Hickory Hills nurse, want people to know what happened.
"This vibrant woman's life was being cut short because someone didn't want to do their job," Holmes stated.
The nurses said it appeared Myers had fallen trying to get herself to the bathroom. They said she should have had a caregiver there to assist her, but didn't. Willis said she asked Myers' caregiver that night how long the woman had been alone.
"She said, 'Well, I don't know.' And I said, 'Okay, well, when is the last time you did a round on her?' It's called doing a round whenever you go and take all of your residents to the bathroom. And she said, 'Well, I haven't seen her all day.'...So I asked again and said, 'No, like when's the last time you took her to the bathroom?' I thought maybe if I was more specific. She said, 'No, I hadn't seen her all shift.' Shift started at two. This is 7:30," Willis explained.
Tennessee has no set requirements as far as how often a patient should be checked on or taken to the bathroom.
But both women have been nurses for years and said five and a half hours is too long.
"This is straight up neglect when you don't touch someone for 5 1/2 hours," Holmes stated.
But an attorney for Hickory Hills maintains Myers was not neglected. While Hickory Hills has never claimed anyone ever actually took Myers to the bathroom that day, the attorney told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that Myers had been "observed...(at) Hickory Hills throughout the afternoon and early evening by a number of different caregivers"...including the one assigned to Myers.
But Willis questioned Myers' caregiver repeatedly that night and got a different story.
"I'm trying to give her every opportunity to fix what she said and she said, 'No, I hadn't seen her all shift,'"Willis described.
Yet later when the caregiver filled out an incident report, she wrote she had indeed seen Myers at "4:15" that afternoon, "walking to her room."
Willis said she refused to sign the report because she did not believe it was a true and accurate account of what happened. And other nurses and even Myers' family also questioned the report, saying it was impossible for Myers to be seen walking to her room since she could no longer walk on her own and needed a wheelchair.
The nurses said the night Myers fell, they sent the caregiver home, expecting she'd be fired the next day. But she wasn't.
"The very next day she was back in the building doing patient care as if nothing happened," Holmes said.
Shocked, the nurses went straight to Hickory Hills' administrator.
"I said, 'Why is she there?' She said, 'Corporate won't let us fire her. That wasn't really abuse. That wasn't really neglect,'" Holmes shared.
Holmes and Willis then did what they say, as nurses, they're required by law to do.
"If you suspect someone being abused, you have to pick up the phone and call," Holmes explained.
They reported what happened to the state's Adult Protective Services agency as well as Hickory Hills' corporate office.
Hickory Hills' attorney maintained a brief summary report from the state Health Department that he sent to NewsChannel 5 shows state regulators visited the facility in March to investigate Myers' fall and subsequent death and conduct their annual survey. The Health Department refused to confirm exactly why they were there, citing confidentiality laws. But according to the report, the state found "no deficiencies" during their visit. Hickory Hills' attorney told NewsChannel 5 Investigates this summary vindicates the facility, insisting the Health Department did "a thorough and complete investigation."
Yet both Willis and Holmes said the Health Department never questioned or even contacted them about Myers' death.
And the former Health Services Director at Hickory Hills who said she headed up an internal investigation right after the fall said she was not questioned either.
Hickory Hills tells NewsChannel 5 Investigates its "internal investigation" determined the neglect allegations were "totally unfounded."
But the former Health Services Director told us she actually determined the caregiver needed to be fired, and, with the administrator's blessing, escorted her out of the building.
Holmes and Willis meanwhile were both suspended after reporting what happened. They called it retaliation. And after their interview with us, both were fired, while at least three other former employees also told NewsChannel 5, they lost their jobs because they too spoke up.
"Anybody who has questioned the incident at all has been suspended or terminated or forced to resign," Willis said.
Meanwhile Hickory Hills rehired Myers' caregiver, calling what had happened to the 88 year old woman "an accident."
"Well, they have to call it an accident. What else are they going to call it?" attorney Clint Kelly asked rhetorically.
The Hendersonville lawyer has notified Hickory Hills that he plans to sue, alleging negligence and wrongful death on behalf of Myers' family.
"It's neglect. And this lady deserved better than that," Kelly said.
Mary Riley is one of Myers' two daughters.
"(My mother's death) could have been prevented if the caregiver had done what she was supposed to do," Riley said.
And the nurses agree. They firmly believe Joyce Myers didn't have to die.
"It's not an accident to not check on somebody for five and a half hours. That's laziness. And this time it cost somebody their life," Holmes said.
Hickory Hills said the facility "takes great pride in the accommodations and services it provides to its residents in its assisted living community." They also claim the nurses who spoke to us are simply disgruntled former employees.
But both women have now hired attorneys and plan to sue Hickory Hills for wrongful termination.
Hickory Hills released the following statement:
"Hickory Hills Alzheimer's Special Care Center takes great pride in the accommodations and services it provides to its residents in its assisted living community. Hickory Hills provides a tremendous service to its residents in providing a sense of independence while they confront a very difficult time in their life in battling a progressive disease process. Hickory Hills has always and will continue to provide the highest level of care and compassion for its residents."