The nurse caring for a psychiatric patient who cut herself with a scalpel in an emergency room bathroom at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital this week has been fired, according to an internal county memo.
The nurse, who was a "traveler," or temporary employee, apparently did not arrange for someone to monitor the patient to ensure that she did not harm herself, the memo said.
Another supervising nurse was placed on administrative leave after the incident. The patient, a female awaiting evaluation, probably obtained the scalpel from the King-Harbor emergency room, according to the memo from county health chief Dr. Bruce Chernof to county supervisors. Early reports suggested that the instrument had been picked up by the patient at another county hospital.
The patient apparently cut herself early Tuesday morning, and her injuries were not serious, county officials said.
The staffing moves come as federal evaluators are conducting a make-or-break survey of King-Harbor that could determine the Willowbrook hospital's future. If the troubled facility fails, it will lose $200 million in federal money, which would prompt county supervisors to close it.
"It's hard to understand how things like that happen when the whole world is watching you," said Supervisor Don Knabe. He said that although the incident was disappointing, the swift removal of the nurse was "a good sign that things are changing" at King-Harbor.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich supported the staffing changes but expressed frustration with county health officials for not communicating the facts of the incident quickly and clearly. "The board and the public should have known about exactly what was going on as it was going on," said Tony Bell, an Antonovich spokesman.
"This is one more sad chapter, but really an impetus to move forward without delay" to privatize the hospital, Bell said.
The county Department of Health Services declined to comment on the changes, citing the ongoing survey.
After the scalpel incident, federal officials cited the hospital Tuesday for placing patients in "immediate jeopardy." County health officials then submitted a preliminary corrective plan to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the agency accepted. The county Department of Health Services must supply a more detailed plan to federal investigators before they conclude the King-Harbor review.
The incident marks the second time in two months that the hospital has been put on "immediate jeopardy" status. The other was in June, when a man waited days for brain surgery before his family drove him to another hospital for the procedure. Since 2004, King-Harbor has been cited for putting patients in immediate jeopardy five times.
Evaluators arrived Monday and are expected to stay at least a week. They will report their findings before Aug. 15. County health officials have contingency plans should the hospital close, including transferring patients to nearby hospitals and searching for a private entity to run King-Harbor.
The county Department of Health Services also reported the scalpel incident to state health regulators, who took steps last month to revoke King-Harbor's license.