Local News

Widow: Cherry Hospital patient should still be alive

Posted November 19, 2008

— The widow of a Cherry Hospital patient who died earlier this year after he sat nearly 24 hours while hospital workers played cards and watched TV says she is devastated by video of her husband hours before his death.

"I believe he would have been alive if they had paid attention to him," his wife of 25 years, Susan Sabock, said Wednesday.

Steven Howard Sabock, 50, died April 29 from a pre-existing heart condition, according to the state medical examiner.

He had entered the state-run psychiatric facility in Goldsboro for bipolar disorder three days prior, his wife said.

But in the hours prior to his death, he choked on medication, fell and hit his head on the floor, went without food and sat neglected less than three feet from where hospital employees worked, socialized and entertained themselves over four shifts.

The surveillance video, released Tuesday by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, shows two workers moving Sabock after 22 hours.

Within 10 minutes, paramedics leave the facility with him on a stretcher.

"It's horrifying," Susan Sabock said while watching the surveillance video for the first time. "I cannot believe that people could walk around and watch a human being just sit there and die."

She said she first learned of negligence in her husband's death after receiving a phone call from a News & Observer reporter.

The hospital later informed her through a letter, she said.

"(It said) just that they were sorry to inform us there had been severe negligence in his care," she said.

Everything else, she said, she has learned from the media.

Sabock's death prompted DHHS Secretary Dempsey Benton to close the ward in question.

One employee resigned, and the remaining were removed from direct patient care for a minimum of 60 days and were disciplined.

Calling the discipline insufficient, Benton also ordered a review of the disciplinary measures, which led to a second employee resigning and three others being fired.

Officials said falsifying reports also led to the terminations; a criminal investigation is ongoing.

Ten other workers who were involved were disciplined – one received a five-day suspension, four received three-day suspensions and five received written warnings. Some are now back working with patients, although DHHS will not say how many.

Steven Sabock's family is now considering how to proceed in the wake of the video's release.

Gene Riddle, an attorney representing the family, said Tuesday that they will "investigate thoroughly" the tape and consider their options.

"I don't want this to ever happen to someone else's dad again. It's like you're reading a magazine, but it's your life," Susan Sabock said. "Something has to be done."

Disciplinary practices raise concern

Sabock's death has sparked strong criticism from mental health advocates who question why more has not been done to punish the hospital workers.

Employment attorney Jack Nichols says state employees have more constitutional notification and appeals rights than their counterparts in the private sector.

"I think there's a misconception that you can't fire state employees," he said. "And that's not true. You can, there's just a way to do it."

Compass Group Inc., an independent consulting firm that reviewed the hospital's practices following Sabock's death, cited concerns it its report about the disciplinary practices, calling it a system where a "bad apple" is put back on the job. That sends a message that "employees' rights supersede patient safety," it said.

"Just because they're state employees, we've got this shield. Why is that? That has to be fundamentally changed as we look at this," John Tote, executive director of the Mental Health Association in North Carolina, said.

Ardis Watkins, legislative affairs director for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, says that although the Cherry Hospital workers are not representative of all state employees, problems will persist if workers are not paid better.

Watkins says he is also concerned about keeping and recruiting qualified state workers because of budget problems.

"These bad apples are going to be taking up more and more of the bushel if we don't take care of that situation now," he said.

Sabock's death is not the first time hospital employees have come under scrutiny as a result of accusations involving improper patient care.

As federal regulators investigated the hospital in August following his death, two hospital health-care technicians, a full-time nurse and a part-time nurse were fired in connection with accusations related to a patient beating.

Health-care technicians Taniko Dominique Upton, 33, and William Kenneth Johnson, 52, were charged with simple assault on a handicapped person, which is a misdemeanor.


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  • ccs1920 Nov 20, 2008

    The internal report speaks of some employees dancing, hugging and kissing while the victim sits in the chair dying. These are in addition to playing cards and other things we have seen on film. The only thing these people didn't do was their job. I can only hope that the state doesn't replace the fired employees with more just like them.

  • aintbackingdwn Nov 20, 2008

    Of coarse the state will use common sense and instead of firing the bo-zo's and fixing the problem they will close down all the mental health facilities and put em all back out on the street. Real action.

    Just like spending all this money on feeding death row inmates while the state haggles over the attending physicians oath. Too bad the doctors weren't there to give some poor victum morphene as they lay dying from a gunshot or stabbing wound.

  • san4short Nov 20, 2008

    "I also feel sorry for America that is going to have the govt run healthcare under the Democrats. We can see what happens when you let democommies control your healthcare."

    Like we've been doing so well the last 8 years under the Republicans? I can't afford $750 a month for family medical coverage, so I better hope my husband doesn't get sick because I only now could afford to add my 2 kids for a mere $350 a month to my medical insurance through my job. I don't want to change the subject, so let's not bring politics into this story. We are all suffering/paying when it comes to healthcare and we're all angry about it and ready to point fingers, but hopefully things will get better. I'm trying to stay optimistic here people :)

  • san4short Nov 20, 2008

    amyrn - Thank you for your comment, I recall my aunt was in the hospital for 2 months battling ovarian cancer, she lost the fight, but she would always report to me how kind the nurses were to her and even while in pain, she always managed a smile for them because they cared. They did their jobs, with heart and compassion and I will always be grateful to them for making my aunt as comfortable as possible during that time. I feel that if you are going to get into that kind of work, it has to be for the right reasons, certainly it's not the money, it's to feel good about helping people. I have the heart but not the stomach to be an RN and while $46,000 is still more than I make and would love to have the benefits, I would rather take on a job that I am comfortable doing and know that I would do it well. These are human beings who deserve to be cared for with respect and dignity, that's someone's family member you are caring for.

  • rroadrunner99 Nov 20, 2008

    I think the hospital Director and the Nursing Director should face serious charge's over this matter. When Top Official's start having to Answer for what they are responsible for and getting paid to be responsible for and doing they will then do their job's.

  • For-Better-Or-Worse Nov 20, 2008


    Congratulations for being taught values growing up, not everyone was.

  • foxyladync Nov 20, 2008

    I guess if you type to the limit, it just posts it. FRUSTRATING, as my posts are displayed without giving me a chance to proof-read them : )
    Oh well, the last point I was making was that facilities should hire a reasonable number of employees so that the caregiver to patient ratio is realistic.
    Now of course, this would all happen in a perfect world.........

  • babycakes Nov 20, 2008

    JAFOinWF.... what does Democrats have to do with this case? Just incase you can't read, THIS HAPPENED IN APRIL, UNDER A REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT....wow.
    My deepest sympathies go to the family of this poor man. This may have been avoided if the staff did their job.

  • lovecarolinagutters Nov 20, 2008

    "that's what happens when you hire hospital workers for the wrong reasons" any1butcarolina

    No, that is what happens when healthcare worker's dont make much more than minimum wage. For-Better-Or-Worse.

    My parents always taught me that if you agree to work for a certain amount of money, that you do the best job that you possibly can, otherwise, don't take the job.

    Nobody forced these people to work for the hospital. If they think they are worth more money they should have turned the job down and gone elsewhere.

  • ecugirl83 Nov 20, 2008

    minimum wage or maximum..who cares? are some of ya'll saying that people have to be paid high wages to do a job? i am a teacher and we sure don't make huge amounts of money, but i still do my job to the best of my ability...you can't buy caring hearts! that was lacking in this case obviously.