A health care worker at a Medford nursing home pleaded guilty Wednesday, admitting that she did not summon help even though she heard alarms that monitored the patient's vital signs sound on the night the patient died.
The nurse's aide, Patricia DiGiovanni, 64, of Port Jefferson Station, accepted a plea deal -- one that lets her avoid jail -- less than a month after two Suffolk juries convicted five of her colleagues in the death of that patient, Aurelia Rios, 72, who died Oct. 26, 2012.
On that night, DiGiovanni's only responsibility was to care for Rios by monitoring the ventilator-dependent patient while she slept and call for help when needed.
In court Wednesday, state prosecutor Veronica Bindrim-MacDevitt asked DiGiovanni if she heard the alarms that monitored Rios' vital signs sound.
"Yes, I did," DiGiovanni replied.
Bindrim-MacDevitt asked DiGiovanni if she notified the nurses. "No," DiGiovanni said.
Bindrim-MacDevitt didn't ask DiGiovanni what she was doing during the hours she was in Rios' room and DiGiovanni didn't say. However, another nurse's aide who was on duty the night Rios died, but not charged, testified DiGiovanni was known to sleep on her shift.
DiGiovanni pleaded guilty to one count of willful violation of public health law, which is punishable up to a year in jail. But under the agreement with state prosecutors, DiGiovanni will instead perform 840 hours of community service and be placed on three years' probation. She will also be barred from caring for those with physical or mental disability, and she will not be allowed to baby-sit children. Prosecutors also agreed to dismiss the remaining counts against DiGiovanni.
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office brought criminal charges against DiGiovanni, eight of her colleagues and their employer, Medford Multicare Center for Living.
"Today's guilty plea makes it clear that my office will hold individuals accountable when acts of neglect occur in nursing facilities in New York State," Schneiderman said. "It is the definition of callousness to attempt to cover up a patient's death by neglect."
In September 2012, Rios, who had a tracheotomy, was admitted to the Medford facility's short-term rehabilitation unit to help wean her off the ventilator, which she had depended on to help her breathe when she was asleep, Bindrim-MacDevitt had said. Every night, a respiratory therapist who cared for Rios connected her to the ventilator, until Oct. 25, 2012. On that night, Kethlie Joseph, a respiratory therapist, failed to do so.
Joseph and three nurses compounded the error, prosecutors said, when they failed to help Rios as her pulse rate and blood oxygen level dropped into dangerous territory, and the equipment monitoring her vital signs activated audible and visual alarms. For more than two hours in the early morning of Oct. 26, 2012, prosecutors said, Joseph and the nurses ignored those warnings, which were sent to their pagers and to terminals set up throughout the ventilator unit.
Prosecutors said the four women and a former director of respiratory therapy attempted to cover up Rios'death or their roles in her death by lying to investigators from the nursing home and the state Health Department, which launched separate inquiries. The circumstances surrounding Rios'death came to light when Stephen Shanahan, a respiratory therapist at the nursing home, reported her death to the state regulators on Nov. 5, 2012.
Two remaining defendants -- the nursing home and its former administrator, David Fielding -- are scheduled to return to court Aug. 13.