Whistle-blowers are heroes. Whistle-blowers do the right thing. Anne Mitchell is a whistle-blower. She is a hero. The way she was treated is a travesty. Numerous articles and websites have discussed the case of Nurse Mitchell. The NY Times ran this article.
Anne Mitchell was indicted and threatened with 10 years in prison for doing what she knew a nurse must: inform state regulators that a doctor was practicing bad medicine. She was fingerprinted and photographed at the jail last June. Mrs. Mitchell stood trial in Texas state court for “misuse of official information,” a third-degree felony in Texas. Legal experts argue that in a civil context, Mrs. Mitchell would seem to be protected by Texas whistle-blower laws.
“It was surreal,” said Mrs. Mitchell, 52, the wife of an oil field mechanic and mother of a teenage son. “I said how can this be? You can’t go to prison for doing the right thing.”
The prosecutor said he would show that Mrs. Mitchell had a history of making “inflammatory” statements about Dr. Rolando G. Arafiles Jr. and intended to damage his reputation when she reported him last April to the Texas Medical Board, which licenses and disciplines doctors. Mitchell had assumed the letter she wrote was anonymous.
When the medical board notified Dr. Arafiles of the anonymous complaint, he protested to his friend, the Winkler County sheriff, that he was being harassed. The sheriff obtained a search warrant to seize two nurses’ work computers and found the letter. Mitchell was fired without explanation. The prosecution has stained her reputations and drained her savings. With felony charges pending, she has been able to find work.
Of course the prosecution ignores laws to protect whistle-blowers, and ethical requirements that Mrs. Mitchell had including a professional obligation to protect patients from a pattern of improper prescribing and surgical procedures — including a failed skin graft that Dr. Arafiles performed in the emergency room, without surgical privileges. He also sutured a rubber tip to a patient’s crushed finger for protection, an unconventional remedy that was later flagged as inappropriate by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
It was not long after the public hospital hired Dr. Arafiles in 2008 that the nurses said they began to worry. They sounded internal alarms but felt they were not being heeded by administrators. Frustrated and fearing for patients, they directed the medical board to six cases “of concern” that were identified by file numbers but not by patient names. The letter also mentioned that Dr. Arafiles was sending e-mail messages to patients about an herbal supplement he sold on the side.
Mrs. Mitchell typed the letter and mailed it with a separate complaint signed by a third nurse, who wrote that she had resigned because of similar concerns about Dr. Arafiles. That nurse was not charged.
To convict Mrs. Mitchell, the prosecution must prove that she used her position to disseminate confidential information for a “nongovernmental purpose” with intent to harm Dr. Arafiles.
Mari E. Robinson, executive director of the Texas Medical Board, has warned in a blistering letter to prosecutors that the case will have “a significant chilling effect” on the reporting of malpractice.
Nonetheless, the sheriff, Robert L. Roberts Jr., and the prosecutor, Scott M. Tidwell, had expressed confidence (and arrogance) in their case. A Texas jury found veteran nurse Anne Mitchell not guilty of harassment. The verdict was announced after the four day prosecution. Jurors took less than an hour to reach a unanimous verdict. The verdict has a profound effect on whistle-blowers in Texas and nationwide. Arafiles is still practicing medicine at Winkler Memorial Hospital
Texas laws protect a nurse’s right, and duty, to report any health care provider when he or she believes that patients are at risk. In a surprise inspection last September, state investigators found several violations by Dr. Arafiles and concluded that the hospital had discriminated against the nurses by firing them for “reporting in good faith.” The hospital administrator, Stan Wiley, admitted that Dr. Arafiles had been reprimanded on several occasions for improprieties in writing prescriptions and performing surgery. Mr. Wiley said he knew when he hired Dr. Arafiles that he had a restriction on his license stemming from his supervision of a weight-loss clinic. All along, Arafiles said he was the victim in the case, even though he had been reprimanded several times by the hospital.