LEESBURG, VA. — 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.