Friday, June 03, 2005

A 'Nut' Takes On the Hospitals

Newsday Wednesday, March 1, 1978

Hospitals Fight Attack by a ‘Nut’
But lately some people have been listening seriously to the charges made by Tom Weiss.

By Joseph M. Treen

It was pouring rain in Queens last fall when Layhmond Robinson, a public relations man for the city’s Health and Hospital’s corp., first saw Tom Weiss, Weiss an about-to-be-fired social worker at the Queens Hospital center in Jamaica, was handing out leaflets, Robinson was waiting for a bus. “Handing out leaflets in the rain, Robinson recalled. “I thought that guy was nuts.”

There are many others who have said they think that Tom Weiss is nuts – many more since he “went public” in September and began handing out sheaves of documents in an attack on Robinson’s Hospital Corp. Weiss says the documents show needless patient deaths have been caused at the Jamaica hospital by understaffing and poor management – a situation which he believes the hospital is trying to cover up. Weiss took the documents to city Councilmen, to assemblymen, to congressmen, to senators both state and federal, even to the white house. He passed them out in Albany and in Washington and, late one night in Binghamton, he dropped off a set at the front door of State Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson. Weiss thrust them into the hands of politicians at campaign rallies; he called on editors and reporters at every major daily and weekly newspaper in New York City.

But for a while nothing happened.
Oh, he was interviewed on an all-night FM talk show; and the State Health Department, which is required by law to look into all hospital complaints from private citizens, said it was studying Weiss’ documents. One TV news program even reported the state study. But nothing really happened.

Not until Feb. 16, that is, when it became known that Queens District Attorney John Santucci was looking into three unexplained deaths at another Queens hospital run by the Health and Hospitals Corp; the hospital in Elmhurst.

The following Monday, George Washington’s birthday, Assemblyman Charles E. Schumer (D. Brooklyn) “released” Weiss’s documents. The newspapers, which had ignored Weiss before, now reported the contents of the documents. And suddenly, Weiss was hot. His name was in the newspapers, Mayor Edward I. Koch who by Weiss’s account had received three sets of documents, called for an investigation.

As expected the Health and Hospital Corp. denied the allegations. But it did more than that. Its spokesmen, on the record and for attribution, said that Weiss had “emotional and probably mental problems.” They said that, those problems were why he had been fired from his job. That made public the question that had thwarted Weiss from the beginning; was he a “Serpico” or was he a nut?

Weiss, who will be 35 tomorrow, does not make the question easy to answer. He is consumed by his subject, carrying one and sometimes two satchels of memos and letters over his shoulders, presenting his case in elaborate detail to almost anyone who will listen. He is persistent, almost always in motion, and speaks rapidly with his hands (even while driving). He lives alone in a fifth-floor walkup loft near City Hall, plays the guitar and piano, loves tennis and softball, but spends most, if not all, of his time pushing his case.

Those he worked for call him a nut, a troublemaker who had to be fired because his outbursts disturbed patients. Those he worked with say that he was a dedicated, kind, able social worker and contend that his mental state is a false issue contrived by the Health and Hospital’s Corp. to discredit him. “Weiss may have his emotional problems,” said one former doctor at the hospital, “but he’s not exaggerating about bad conditions and mismanagement there.”

Weiss agrees that he did have mental problems about a year ago: a case of depression which was cured he said, with medication. Ironically, he says, while depressed, he did not agitate for better patient care. It was only after he recovered, he said, that he resumed filing memos and complaints. And it was then, on July 19, 1977, that he was suspended.

According to the Hospital Corp. records of his firing, Weiss was demonstrating “inappropriate behavior,” had been “excessively absent,” had been “incompetent,” had defied his superiors by holding a patient meeting to which he brought (Weiss says he brought it unwittingly) “a lunch bag infested with roaches,” and had refused “to submit to a psychiatric examination.”

But according to Kathy Friedman, the head of the hospital’s community advisory board, the charges were trumped up. “Tom is certainly hyperactive,” she said. “But if anyone should have known how to handle someone with emotional problems, it was the [psychiatric] department he worked in. They just didn’t handle it properly.”

Weiss was suspended and later fired because, she said, he had agitated too much for better patient care. Such agitation, as Weiss saw it, was part of his job. In 1974, he had been elected the social workers’ representative on the Community Advisory Board and was made head of its Patient Care Subcommittee. As such, Weiss heard many complaints of poor care and often passed them on to the hospital administration.

After the fiscal crisis, Weiss said, his major complaint was patient deaths. “I’ve seen deaths all along,” he said. “The hospital has always been understaffed but the budget cuts took a bad situation and made it critical…The deaths ranged into the hundreds and into the thousands. I can’t give you the names but they were many.” He paused. “Many, Very many.”

The Hospital Corp. soon focused on only one charge against Weiss; his refusal to undergo a psychiatric examination, required by law of civil service employees when they are ordered to do so by their superiors. Weiss says he discovered that a file of derogatory material was being sent by the Hospital’s Corp. to the psychiatrist that it had chosen. He therefore broke an appointment, which he says he later rescheduled. The Hospital Corp. says that the appointment was not rescheduled and that Weiss was being insubordinate.

In January, after his case had been delayed by an unsuccessful legal challenge which he made in State Supreme Court, Weiss was “terminated.” He had filed an appeal and has, he says, also seen the Hospital Corp. psychiatric Hospital Corp. Vice President for personnel Ross E. Taylor says that the Hospital Corp’s final review panel will probably hear Weiss’ case before the end of March. Taylor says he doesn’t know whether Weiss saw the psychiatrist, but adds that he isn’t sure that it could make any difference since Weiss refused an examination when he was ordered to undergo one.

Last August, a month after Weiss had been suspended, he was arrested on the charge of trespassing on hospital grounds. The charges were later “adjourned contemplating dismissal,” meaning that they would be dropped if Weiss kept out of trouble for six months. But the suspension and a night in jail left Weiss angry and bitter. In September, he “went public.”

The documents that he distributed were a series of memos on hospital stationary which discussed the 1976 deaths of five patients and attributed them to staff shortages and “inadequate attention.”(One of the memos was under the signature of Dr. Canute Bernard, now on the staff of Harlem Hospital. In previously published reports, a spokesman for Bernard said the memo was a forgery. However, his attorney, Miriam Robinson, said yesterday that Bernard would neither confirm nor deny that allegation.)

Weiss took the memos mainly to politicians who were either from Queens or on health or appropriation committees. Because he went to college in Binghamton before attending and being graduated from Queens College, he also gave them to Binghamton politicians. Mrs. Friedman calls Weiss’s action “a bit of a vendetta,” and Weiss admits to “an element of revenge.” But he says that there is more to it than that. “I consider the matter to be of considerable importance because it involves lies,” he says. “It’s not a reasonably minor violation of patients rights – a loss of a bedpan, something like that’ its lives. And secondly there is the cover-up aspect to all of this.”

Staff Shortage Called Critical
By John Cummings

Jamaica – Tom Weiss, a former social worker who has been charging that staff shortages resulted in five patient deaths at the Queens Hospital Center here, advised the center’s community board last night to fight any further reduction in the nursing staff.

His statement came after the board voted to investigate the deaths, alleged to have occurred because of hospital mismanagement and nursing shortages, and asked Weiss to address it about the situation – now under investigation by the mayor’s office.

The Health and Hospitals Corp. which operates the city hospitals, has denied any mismanagement and said that Weiss was suspended from his job because of “emotional problems.” The Hospital Corp. has also charged that a memo said to have been written by Dr. Canute Bernard, former community board chairman, and offered in support of the charges is a forgery. It was among the memos provided by Weiss last week.

Weiss, who said he had feared that he would be arrested on entering the hospital grounds where the board meeting was held last night, spoke without incident. He told the board forcefully: “Check everything [concerning the deaths] very carefully and do not rely blindly on the hospital administration.” He added that if nursing shortages were responsible for the five deaths in 1978, the situation now was “as bad or worse.” “You should not only fight further cuts in staff, but fight to have to restore cuts made since,” Weiss told the board members.

To investigate the deaths and their relation, if any to the nursing cutbacks, the board voted to create what it called an ad-hoc committee of five of its members. The motion was approved by a vote of 8-5 with four abstentions after several members said they felt that community board should await the outcome of the investigation ordered by Mayor Edward Koch, to be carried out by the Hospitals Corp.

The situation at the Jamaica center is not directly related to the Queens district attorney’s investigation into the deaths of three patients at the center at Elmhurst where three patients died in recent months after their respirators had been disconnected and the alarms were apparently turned off. That investigation apparently involves, among other aspects, the possibility that overworked staff turned off the warning devices because they kept going off even when the respirators were otherwise working perfectly.

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