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Thursday
Oct102019

Nurse alleges colleagues misused Benadryl to put patients to sleep: Lawsuit

(WEST ORANGE, N.J.) -- A nurse in New Jersey is suing a hospital, claiming that she was taken off the schedule and eventually pushed out of her job on an adult psychiatry unit after she reported to higher-ups that some night-shift nurses were allegedly giving Benadryl to patients to make them sleep and not reporting their actions.

Patricia Moran, a registered nurse for more than 30 years at RWJ Barnabas Health, which owns Monmouth Medical Center, was hired in 1988 and worked on the adult involuntary psychiatric unit at the center.

In March 2019, her civil lawsuit claims, Moran suspected that some overnight nurses were allegedly using Benadryl to make patients drowsy or put them to sleep.

Benadryl, which has a generic name of diphenhydramine, is used to treat allergy symptoms, such as runny noses, sneezing, itchy throats and itchy and watery eyes. Common side effects include sleepiness, fatigue and headaches. Benadryl also markets itself as a sleep aid.

Moran's complaint, which was filed in Monmouth County Superior Court on Wednesday, said that "on hospital adult units, Benadryl is almost exclusively prescribed to address side effects from psychotropic medication ... such as restlessness, muscle cramping and involuntary muscle contractions."

However, Moran's complaint said that she believed the medication was allegedly being administered by staff to lighten the workload for the night-shift nurses.

According to her complaint, she learned of the alleged misuse because the machine that dispensed and tracked medications given at the hospital, was not generating reports when Benadryl was being given to the patients.

"This confirmed that nurses were not providing accurate information regarding the use of Benadryl," the complaint alleges.

Dr. Saumya Bhutani, a resident physician in psychiatry in New York who looked at Moran's complaint, per ABC News' request, said that in adult inpatient psychiatric units, however, that Benadryl is used and ordered by physicians not only for side effects of psychiatric medications but also for insomnia and agitation.

"The complaint as it stands is still vague without more information from Moran. Each Pyxis and electronic health record is uniquely different so it's hard to understand where she saw that Benadryl was being given and where she saw that it wasn't," Bhutani said Thursday. "Without hearing from the nurses, doctors and patients, it's difficult to determine the extent of the misuse. Was the Benadryl ordered for other indications beyond side effects? What were the conversations and interactions between the nurses and patients when the Benadryl was given? What was going on with the patients? Were the day nurses and doctors made aware of what was going on?"

ABC News was not able to reach Moran for comment on her lawsuit.

In a statement to ABC News on Thursday, the medical center said, "Monmouth Medical Center is fully committed to providing a safe environment for our patients, visitors and staff. Per our policy, we are unable to comment on any individual employee or patient matter."

In her complaint, Moran said that she took her allegations to the hospital's administrative director of psychiatry, who then went to her direct manager. Moran claims in court documents that her direct supervisor then "retaliated" against her.

"[Moran] was denied time on the schedule, she was provided a bogus evaluation, she was subjected to increased scrutiny, and she was otherwise ostracized from her co-workers," court papers said.

In March 2019, Moran sent the supervisor a letter, saying, "I find it surprising that I have not been asked about availability, and have no time at all scheduled, although I see other per diems do have time scheduled. I am available any evening 7-11 shift. Pat,” according to the suit.

When she heard nothing back from the supervisor, Moran claimed, she went back to the administrative director of psychiatry to report that she believed she was being "subjected to retaliation as a result of reporting the misuse of medication" and also that her supervisor was "deliberately and maliciously" creating a hostile work environment in hopes that she would either resign or get terminated.

Moran also said that after working with adults for more than 30 years, she was abruptly moved to a pediatric floor. She claims that when she asked for help with an assignment on the pediatric unit, she was given another assignment but also reported to human resources for "refusing" the initial task. She said in court papers that she did not refuse the first assignment.

"[Moran] was further advised that her conduct was a 'terminable offense' and that she was not allowed to work until ... the matter was investigated by HR. [She] was placed on unpaid leave and remains on unpaid leave as of the filing of the complaint (i.e., from July 2019 through October 2019)," court papers said.

Moran said that she met with human resources in September 2019 and was issued a final warning "with no prior verbal or written warning" despite RWJ's disciplinary process.

"Even though [Moran] had not received any discipline whatsoever in more than 31 years with the hospital, [she] suddenly found herself under investigation and slated for potential termination," the complaint said.

Moran said that although she was cleared to return to work on Oct. 7 -- after human resources had completed its investigation -- her supervisor still "refused" to schedule her for any shifts and claimed that "there was 'not a need' for her services." As of October, she'd been out of work for at least 14 weeks, the complaint said.

Moran is demanding a trial by jury, according to her complaint, which also includes RWJ Barnabas Health, her supervisor and a human resources director as defendants.

"As alleged in the complaint, the hospital turned its back on Ms. Moran and immediately retaliated in an egregious fashion, all because she exposed illicit conduct and sought to uphold the highest standard of care for patients. No employee deserves to be treated in such a manner, let alone someone who has dedicated more than 31 years at this particular hospital," said Matthew A. Luber, of McOmber & McOmber, who is representing Moran, in a statement to ABC News Thursday. "Ms. Moran looks forward to her day in court."

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