I’m suspended without pay for letting my colleagues know we’re now a COVID-19 unit.

…and how I smuggled In donated masks stuffed into a Subway sandwich bag.

by Jhonna Porter, RN

Nurses are engaged in the fight of our lives, against the worst pandemic we’ve ever witnessed, and I’m watching it all unfold from the sidelines. It’s not because I’m quarantined. Last week I was sent home, suspended without pay.

I’m a relief charge Nurse caring for patients on a telemetry floor at West Hills Hospital, owned by Hospital Corporation of America — the largest, wealthiest for-profit hospital chain in the United States. When the Coronavirus pandemic started, I was one of the first in my hospital to volunteer to work with Covid-19 patients. I became a Nurse to save lives. It’s who I am. Being suspended right now is truly the worst thing the hospital could do to me.

Our hospital is in an affluent area of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. We have a lot of celebrities coming through our hospital. All Nurses here understand and respect patient privacy laws. I don’t know of any breaches or leaks in the seven years that I’ve worked here, no matter how famous our patient was.

In this Coronavirus pandemic, however, our hospital is using patient privacy laws to keep staff in the dark about our possible exposure. The U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, in a special March 2020 bulletin, stated that patient information can be shared to persons at risk of contracting or spreading the disease. That’s us. We are exposed daily to Covid-19 or suspected Covid-19 patients, but the hospital insists that we not share information to other at-risk staff.

And let me make this perfectly clear: if we’ve been exposed, then we’re exposing our patients, not to mention spreading the disease in the community and to our families.

Here’s what happened: my colleagues and I have a private Facebook group just for us Nurses for our particular floor. We have used it for years to communicate with each other about what’s happening on the floor. None of our supervisors are in this closed group. Recently, we’ve used it to communicate about Covid-19 patient rooms. Somehow hospital management got a hold of a post of mine alerting my co-workers that our unit had been converted into a Covid-19 unit. It was a warning to save my colleagues lives and to ensure we did everything possible not to spread the disease.

Somehow, to our hospital administrators, that was a violation of patient privacy, although I never once posted any patient information. They would rather have Nurses — who don’t have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) — to remain unaware of the risks. And they are using “HIPAA laws” to save face, when in fact I did not violate any patient privacy.

Twenty hours prior to my suspension, I publicly posted on my Facebook page about our lack of PPE and I asked for donations from the community. And the community came through! I got four boxes of N95 masks, sewn masks, and 7 goggles. I have a feeling my public Facebook post had more to do with my supervisors being upset with me. Again, I’m putting my patients, my community and my co-workers first.

Management wouldn’t allow me to use or share the donated PPE with my colleagues. A female in the community of West Hills stated that she tried to give masks to the hospitals but they denied her. I met with her outside the hospital and I actually smuggled masks into the hospital in a Subway sandwich bag, disguised as food. Maybe that was also some sort of violation. I don’t care. My job is to save lives, and that is what I will do.

I’m not the only one who has been hurt by management’s crackdown on the truth. Chris S., another West Hills colleague of mine who works in the Emergency Department, was also suspended. His crime? Like I did, and like Nurses all over the country are doing, Chris took to social media, asking the public to donate needed supplies. He is now sick at home, with symptoms of Covid-19. He hasn’t been able to touch his one and three year old boys in more than a week, and now, his wife is experiencing symptoms.

Neither of us know when, or if, we’ll be able to return to work so we can fight for our patients and our fellow Nurses. The very protection Chris asked the public to donate could have been what kept him safe.

For the hospital to be secretive about where confirmed and suspected cases are does nothing to slow the spread of this disease. Intimidating Nurses so that they won’t ask for help from their community only makes the situation worse. This kind of censorship is a recipe for spiking the curve, not flattening it.F

I’ve been off for eight days so far, during a time when hospitals are actively trying to coax retired Nurses back to work to treat the ever-growing number of Covid-19 patients. My hospital and my community needs me right now more than time in the hospital’s history.

I urge my hospital to do more to protect patients and nurses. As the biggest hospital chain in the U.S., they could be setting the standards, not lowering the bar.

PS: A very Respected doctor has started a gofundme page and has already raised close to $30,000. He is using the money to buy the staff the appropriate PPE that the hospital has not been providing on its own. And because of him, my staff on my floor have four hazmat suits that they should’ve been given in the first place. Please donate here.

We are RNs and other healthcare professionals in California committed to supporting working conditions that allow us to provide quality patient care and safety.