Two Nurses Fight Back After Losing Their Jobs in a Tragic Incident
After a stillborn birth, East Bay nurses Christine Silcocks and Diane Strey were pushed out of their dream jobs. But they never gave up and want others to know they shouldn't either.
Christine Silcocks and Diane Strey see their struggle as a corollary to the #MeToo movement.
Photo by Taylor Johnson
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Christine Silcocks knew what to expect when she entered her patient’s room at the start of her nursing shift. On the bed lay a young woman crying hysterically. Less than two hours earlier, her baby’s heart had suddenly stopped during active labor. Her parents were crying; her friends were crying. Only her boyfriend was managing to hold back tears.
“They were so freaked out of their minds,” Silcocks recalled during a recent interview in her Alameda home. “They did not trust anybody at that hospital.”
When the stillbirth occurred in May 2010, Silcocks had worked at Washington Hospital in Fremont for 31 years, including more than a decade as a labor and delivery nurse. She was also the only trained psychiatric nurse at the birthing center, so her job included caring for grieving mothers.
But this case was clearly different — although Silcocks could not have known that it would soon lead to the end of her nursing career and a long legal battle against the hospital that has still not been settled.
“I think about it every day,” said Silcocks, who lives off Park Street. “There is still a tremendous emotional scar that never goes away.”
Moments before the young mother received an epidural, the unborn baby showed a strong heart rate. Less than an hour later, it was gone.
“For a baby to die in the middle of an epidural,” Silcocks said, “it just doesn’t happen like that.”
Inside the room, Silcocks explained to the mother that the birth had to go on and that she would help her every step of the way.
It took about two hours for the baby girl to be delivered. The amniotic fluid was dark and had a foul odor, Silcocks recalled. Following the family’s wishes, she bathed the girl, dressed her, and had her christened. Family members took turns holding her. “It was the most emotional thing you could ever imagine,” she said.
Silcocks said that soon after, two of her bosses pulled her aside outside the patient’s room and told her the hospital wanted a tissue sample of the baby for its pathologists to inspect.
Silcocks refused, insisting that the hospital was legally required to first have the coroner inspect the body. She stayed in the family’s room late into the night until an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy arrived to take the baby. “I believe that was the beginning of the end of my job,” she said.
The stillbirth marked the end of several people’s jobs at Washington Hospital, even though the autopsy found that the fetus had died from an amniotic fluid infection — not through any obvious fault of the hospital or its nurses.
But the autopsy report wasn’t released until nearly two months after the death. Silcocks and other nurses maintain that the hospital, seeking to avoid the wrath of state regulators, overreacted to what was a tragic incident.
In the weeks following the stillbirth, Washington unleashed on its labor and delivery nurses what their California Nurses Association union representative Jerry Fillingim, termed “the Massacre at the OK Corral.”
The two nurses directly responsible for the mother’s care at the time of the fetal demise were fired. So were at least three other nurses, whom the hospital accused of looking at the patient’s fetal heart-rate chart. Multiple nurses said they would do that only to understand and learn from what went wrong, but the hospital held that it was a violation of federal law protecting patient privacy, because the young mother was not the nurses’ patient.
Silcocks and her colleague Diane Strey, who ended up losing her career and her home, faced a different fate. They had not been involved in the care of the young mother before the stillbirth. Yet exactly two weeks after it occurred, Silcocks and Strey and two other nurses were ordered off the floor and into the office of Rosa Romero, the hospital’s chief of patient care. As Silcocks arrived, one of the other nurses was leaving in tears. “I felt like I was going in front of a firing squad,” she said.
‘“This is not good,’ ” Silcocks recalled Romero telling her. ‘“Listen to everything I say, and if you don’t comply, you will be terminated or you can resign.’” The nurses were being ordered to attend an open-ended remedial training class that ultimately lasted 6½ weeks. They were told that failing their exams would cost them their jobs, Silcocks said.
Romero, who is no longer with Washington Hospital, declined to be interviewed for this report. In court papers, however, she denied ever threatening anyone’s job. But there was no disagreement about the accusations facing Silcocks, Strey, and the other two nurses who were not involved in the death.
According to testimony from Romero and Chief Nursing Officer Jan Wood, three doctors had warned that these nurses were unsafe, lacked critical thinking skills, and couldn’t adequately chart fetal heart rates.
“I was totally in shock,” Silcocks recalled. “I had tons of pressure in my chest.”
Romero and Wood provided no evidence to back up their claims, court records show. Silcocks had nothing but positive performance evaluations. And, like every nurse in the unit, she was certified in charting fetal heart rates.
Of the four nurses placed in the remedial class for allegedly being unsafe, one was among those later fired for reviewing the mother’s fetal heart-rate charts. Another returned to her job midway through the class and, according to the hospital, is now a nurse manager at the birthing center.
But Silcocks and Strey decided to fight to clear their names. They spoke at hospital board meetings and filed a complaint with state regulators that resulted in a sharp reprimand over the hospital’s response to the stillbirth. And they supported each other through the hardest years of their lives.
After they both agreed to settle their civil claims against Washington through mediation, Strey took the hospital to trial seeking workers’ compensation benefits. Not only did she win, but the hospital’s allegations against both nurses unraveled as the doctors alleged to have called a meeting to warn hospital administrators that Strey and Silcocks were unsafe contradicted those claims.
After Strey prevailed in her case, Silcocks said the hospital late last year offered her $180,000 to settle, but she won’t sign any agreement that prohibits her from sharing her story.
Both nurses see their struggle as a corollary to the #MeToo movement — they were subjugated and humiliated by powerful people who cost them their dream jobs but keep fighting in hopes that others won’t succumb.
“Washington Hospital wanted us to think the worst possible things about ourselves — that we were bad nurses,” Strey said. “But it wasn’t true, even though they still won’t admit it.”