SPRINGFIELD — Effingham Health System and its former chief of nursing are embroiled in a controversy stemming from a COVID-19 surge at its hospital.
Maggie Hendler, MS, RN, CCRN, said Friday that she was placed on administrative leave for 30 days and eventually terminated after her repeated requests to enact the hospital’s COVID-19 disaster plan weren’t heeded by CEO Dr. Fran Witt. Hendler said her insistence was prompted by a flood of patients that overwhelmed the 25-bed facility in August.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, there were four days in mid-August when the discovery of new Effingham County cases exceeded 100.
“I can’t believe I was fired for doing my job,” Hendler said.
Effingham Health System refused to comment about the situation other than to deny Hendler’s allegations, which include bullying by Witt.
Hendler said she appealed to the Effingham Health System Board of of Directors to enact the hospital’s COVID-19 disaster plan, which among many things calls for making maximum space available for infected patients.
“The crux of this matter is that I asked three times in less than 10 days to implement the COVID disaster plan that we created as an organization in March 2020,” Hendler said. “In that plan was the path to take care of a disaster exactly like this.”
In mid-August, the hospital was in “full diversion,” a status requiring Emergency Medical Services (EMS) agencies to consider an alternative hospital destination for their patients. Hospitals may not refuse care for a patient presented to their facility during this period but there might be a delay in receiving care.
“During the peak of the pandemic (in August), we saw time delays in off-loading patients range from 30 minutes to just over three hours,” Effingham County EMS Director Wanda McDuffie said. “This was at all hospitals (in the area), not just Effingham.”
An Effingham Hospital employee since 2018 and chief nursing officer since 2020, Hendler contends that Effingham Hospital kept two rooms open for elective surgeries despite having dozens of waiting COVID-19 victims during this period.
“For more than 10 days, they continued to hold open beds in the in-patient unit,” Hendler said. “I wanted to use those beds to take care of COVID patients.”
Chief of Staff Dr. Alexander Wynn, who isn’t a hospital employee, offered his opinion on the space situation.
“Early in August when we began having a surge in our COVID and we realized that our resources were going to be stretched, I reviewed every single operative case that was being done by all of the surgeons,” he said. “Any elective surgery that would require an in-patient admission was canceled. The beds that were used to take care of patients that were operated on were all emergent cases and the two that I know (Hendler) has discussed were both patients with urgent need for surgery for cancer.
“Those are the only two that were actually held. The rest came through the emergency room, were done emergently and, of course, had beds after that as well.”
Wynn said the hospital followed all EMS, (Department of Public Health), CDC and American College of Surgeon guidelines on how to manage the COVID-19 surge.
Hendler said she was called into Witt’s office Aug. 24 to discuss her disaster plan requests. She said her leadership skills were strongly questioned and was told to be “more positive.”
“I sat there and cried, picked up my stuff and walked out the door to take the rest of the day off because I could not function like that anymore because the community deserves care,” Hendler said.
Hendler said she received an email the following morning that notified her of her placement on administrative leave. She said it came in the wake of an email that she sent to Witt that said, “I will not be bullied and harassed for doing my job because all of clinical services rolls up to the chief nursing officer. That’s the part that I was over and I wouldn’t be bullied or harassed for doing my job.
“Within 10 minutes of me sending her that email — I was sitting at home on my computer — I got a popup on my computer that said my (work) email was being forwarded to her. Then I got an email from her that told me to contact (Human Resources) for further directions.
“That’s the day I was placed on administrative leave.”
On Sept. 24, Hendler, who lodged a complaint against Witt to Human Resources, learned of her dismissal.
“I was told that she was not seen as violating policy on bullying and harassment,” Hendler said. “In the words of the Human Resources director, she was ‘direct’ with me and there were no compliance issues. I was also told that the COVID disaster plan was a ‘work in progress.’
“After 18 months, that is not true.”
Hendler said she and an Effingham Hospital team started devising a plan about how to handle a COVID-19 surge in March 2020.
“The facilities director had calculated how many patients we could fit in every available space within that hospital,” she said.
Hendler said she was offered a severance package of three months’ pay but she rejected it.
“I will not accept ‘shush’ money,” she said. “I would have to admit that they did no wrong and I couldn’t share this story.”
Effingham Health System declined to comment about a severance package.
“Many of these allegations are related to personnel matters,” it said in an e-mail statement to the Herald. “The Hospital does not discuss personnel matters with the media. In response to the other allegations, the Hospital denies the statements and allegations.”
Hendler said she has no plans to sue the hospital.
She said, “It’s my community! It’s my hospital! All I want is the community to know what happened and to understand that I lost my job for this community, and I walk away at (the hospital’s) choice.”
Wynn said he believes the hospital did a good job during the August surge.
“Everybody in this facility from the CEO down to housekeeping has gone above and beyond to provide the same excellent care during this pandemic as they did every day before it and will do after it,” he said.