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Hospital apologizes to nurses over abortion decision

Nassau University Medical Center (April 23, 2003)

Nassau University Medical Center (April 23, 2003) Credit: Newsday File / Dick Yarwood

Nassau University Medical Center president Arthur Gianelli has rescinded sanctions against eight nurses who refused to take part in an abortion and has apologized to some of them, saying they "did nothing wrong."

The hospital's admission of mistakes stemmed from a March 31 incident in which a pregnant patient's water broke before the 14-week-old fetus was viable. A doctor told her she faced a possible life-threatening infection if the pregnancy was not terminated.

The nurses refused to assist in the procedure, citing moral objections. Under federal law, health care workers can opt out of a procedure for moral reasons, except in a life-threatening situation.

The patient's doctor, however, was not concerned because later in the day a nurse willing to assist was scheduled to come in. The physician did not believe the patient was in imminent danger, Gianelli said.

Because of a miscommunication, Gianelli said, the director of perinatal nursing believed the patient was in a life-threatening situation. She informed her superiors of the nurses' refusal to take part or to sign a form attesting to their objections. Hospital officials in turn began disciplinary action that included loss of vacation days and reprimands in their files.

After a weeklong investigation, Gianelli acknowledged that the hospital had made mistakes and was changing its procedures and further reviewing its policies.

"We erred in our personnel actions, have apologized to several of the nurses and will do so with the others, as well. They did nothing wrong," Gianelli said Tuesday.

Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, which protested the sanctions, wasn't completely mollified by the apology.

"The problem is, this is not the only kind of incident where management disregards the rules, procedures and laws," he said Tuesday. "Still, this is a step in the right direction."

Laricchiuta said the union still plans to participate in a demonstration that it and some anti-abortion groups are sponsoring at the county Legislature on Monday.

The abortion was completed on April 2, and the patient was released the following week in good health, union officials said. Citing privacy laws, the hospital would not identify her.

Gianelli said the incident had forced hospital officials to look closely at their policy on employees' right to perform or assist in some health care procedures. They had posted the policy on Dec. 15 on the hospital's website. But Gianelli said the hospital had not adequately informed medical staff about it.

The hospital is refining a new policy that defines more clearly when a health care worker can refuse to take part in a nonemergency procedure. It also says the attending physician must declare and document a medical emergency.

County Legis. Francis Becker Jr. (R-Lynbrook) demanded in a letter sent to Gianelli Friday that he rescind the disciplinary actions.

On Tuesday, Becker said he was grateful Gianelli had acted, but the demonstration would go ahead to show "that there are people in the community who support" the hospital employees who oppose abortion.

With Ridgely Ochs

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