Texas Nurse On Trial After Reporting Doctor
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now, to Texas and a controversial legal case involving a nurse who acted as a whistleblower against a doctor she thought was practicing bad medicine. The nurse said she was trying to protect her patients. But prosecutors charged 52-year-old Anne Mitchell in state court for the misuse of official information. And they said she had a history of making inflammatory statements against the doctor at a rural hospital in Kermit, Texas. She faces up to 10 years in prison. Kermit is a small town and the case has created deep divisions there. It's also being closely watched by medical professionals across the country.
Kevin Sack has been following the case for The New York Times. And he joins us now. Kevin, thanks for being with us.
Mr. KEVIN SACK (Journalist, The New York Times): Sure, thanks for having me.
NORRIS: How did this go from a case where a nurse wrote a complaint against a doctor to a criminal case in state court, quickly bring us up to speed on what happened.
Mr. SACK: Well, a lot of it seems to have to do with the local politics of this small town. The doctor, whose name is Rolando Arafiles, who had been at this hospital for about a year, is friendly with the sheriff in the town who is a real power center in the town. And after this anonymous complaint was filed by Ms. Mitchell and a colleague of hers, the doctor was notified by the Texas Medical Board about the complaint, and he quickly went to the sheriff who was a personal friend. In fact, the sheriff has glowing things to say about the doctor's medical practice. He helped save him after a heart attack. So, the doctor went to the sheriff, made this complaint and the sheriff opened an investigation.
NORRIS: And could you just explain the statute that they're using here: misuse of information. What information did she allegedly misuse?
Mr. SACK: Well, here's the way the statute reads in the indictment itself. It says that Anne Mitchell in her position as a public servant, namely compliance officer for the Winkler County Hospital, and with intent to harm Dr. Rolando Arafiles, used for a nongovernmental purpose information to which the defendant had access because of the defendant's employment and which information had not been made public and forwarding such information to another. What all that means is that she is a public employee because this was a publicly-owned hospital. And she took information that she had access to because of her public position, namely patient case numbers, and then submitted them to another body.
The key here is that you can only be guilty of this crime if your purpose was nongovernmental. And the Texas Medical Board which was the recipient of that information has already said in a blistering letter to the prosecutors that it was absolutely a governmental purpose, that anytime a nurse or anyone else reports an offense or a perceived offense to them, it's got a governmental purpose, namely the regulation of the practice of medicine in the state of Texas. So what has to be demonstrated by the prosecutor is that there was something else personal presumably going on here.
NORRIS: And what would be possible motive there? Was there bad blood between nurse and doctor?
Mr. SACK: As far as I can tell, there wasn't, but that's what the trial will be for.
NORRIS: In writing this complaint, what do they point to as evidence that this doctor was practicing bad medicine?
Mr. SACK: A number of things. In one case, Dr. Arafiles apparently conducted a skin graft in the hospital's emergency room despite the fact that the hospital was not licensed to perform surgery and the doctor did not have surgical privileges in the hospital. There was another case where someone came in with a crush injury to his finger and apparently the doctor ended up suturing sort of a rubber tip to try to prevent the patient from bumping the finger up against anything after it had been repaired. They also make note of the fact that he apparently sells herbal medicines to patients, and that patients that are seen in his clinic would then get follow-up emails where he was trying to encourage them to buy the medicines that he sells.
NORRIS: How long is the trail expected to last?
Mr. SACK: A week or two.
NORRIS: And is the doctor allowed to continue practicing?
Mr. SACK: Oh, the doctor has been practicing. The hospital reprimanded the doctor, according to the hospital administrator, for a number of improper practices. And the doctor pledged to not repeat those and, according to the administrator, has not. But he feels that he's been, in his words, victimized and abused by this case.
NORRIS: Kevin Sack, thank you very much.
Mr. SACK: Thank you.
NORRIS: Kevin Sack is a reporter with The New York Times.
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