Black nurse claims racial discrimination at Aurora hospital led to unfounded manslaughter charge
A Black nurse claims she faced crippling racial discrimination at an Aurora hospital that led to her being wrongly prosecuted for manslaughter in the death of an elderly patient.
DonQuenick Joppy, 39, claims in a newly filed federal lawsuit that her colleagues at The Medical Center of Aurora discriminated against her by humiliating her, criticizing her in ways they did not criticize her white peers and denying her opportunities for growth.
She claims a pattern of discrimination by the hospital ultimately caused her to be prosecuted for manslaughter in the death of a 94-year-old patient in 2019. The criminal charges, brought by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, were later dropped at the prosecution’s request “in the interest of justice,” a motion to dismiss shows.
“It’s wild,” Joppy said in an interview. “My life has been turned upside down… I never killed anyone. I’m a great nurse.”
The Medical Center of Aurora’s director of marketing and public relations, Rachel Robinson, denied the allegations in a statement Tuesday.
“The lawsuit that has been filed against The Medical Center of Aurora is without merit and is a tactic by a disgruntled former colleague,” the statement read.
Joppy was charged in 2020 with manslaughter, negligent death of an at-risk person and neglect of an at-risk person in the death of a 94-year-old patient in the intensive care unit at The Medical Center of Aurora, a hospital owned by HealthONE, which operates several hospitals in metro Denver.
The criminal charges came more than a year after Joppy was fired over the same patient’s death, according to the lawsuit, which claims the hospital’s investigation into the man’s death was racially biased.
The man died on May 24, 2019, after coming to the hospital with evidence of septic shock and multi-organ failure, according to the complaint. He was put on a ventilator before the man’s family decided to move him to the ICU for palliative care, according to the complaint.
The patient came under Joppy’s care toward the end of her overnight shift, on a day when the ICU was understaffed, according to the complaint. Joppy stayed two hours past the end of her shift, which ended at 7 a.m., to care for the man. Around 8 a.m., a doctor gave a verbal order for “end of life” measures to another nurse, who delegated the order to Joppy, according to the lawsuit.
Joppy then called a respiratory therapist and followed his instructions for turning off the ventilator. The therapist visited the patient shortly after that and disconnected the ventilator, the complaint claims. The patient then died; his death certificate says he died of natural causes, and specifically of septic shock, the lawsuit says.
After the man’s death, a supervising nurse in the ICU raised questions about how the death was handled, according to the complaint. The hospital investigated and found that Joppy acted without a documented order to do so in the patient’s chart and did not wait for the respiratory therapist to arrive to assist with the ventilator discontinuation, according to the lawsuit, which says those findings are inaccurate.
The hospital also cited Joppy’s choice to stay after the end of her shift as reason for termination, but that’s common practice in the hospital, according to the complaint.
The hospital fired Joppy, and then, the lawsuit claims, referred the case to the attorney general’s office, which filed the charges against her in November 2020.
The medical center’s spokeswoman said in an email that the hospital is required to file certain reports with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and that the attorney general’s office has access to those reports and “made the independent decision to investigate the occurrence involving Ms. Joppy on its own.”
“We have the utmost respect for our patients and their family’s end of life decisions, and we work hard to honor those decisions,” the statement said. “When processes designed to ensure the comfort and dignity of patients are not followed, we take appropriate action, including reporting to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, as required.”
In an email cited in the lawsuit, the hospital’s vice president of human resources says the hospital was “partnering” with the attorney general’s office on Joppy’s case. The lawsuit names that vice president and the hospital’s then-director of patient safety as additional defendants.
The attorney general’s office requested the charges against Joppy be dropped in September 2021. The criminal charges were filed by summons, so publicly available court records do not detail evidence supporting the accusations against Joppy, and the prosecution’s motion to dismiss does not give a reason for the dismissal beyond it being “in the interest of justice.”
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office was unable to provide more information about the criminal case before this story’s deadline. The prosecutor who handled the case, who has since left the office, declined to comment.
Joppy has yet to recover from the ordeal, said her attorney, Jennifer Robinson. Joppy has stopped working as a nurse — although her license is active — and is in an unstable housing situation.
“I took this case on because I thought it was particularly egregious that they would do this to someone’s life,” Jennifer Robinson said. “She’s pretty much homeless now and hasn’t recovered since all of this happened. Who is going to hire a nurse who has manslaughter charges against her, even if they are dropped? It’s just not cool to treat people this way.”
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