Gallup hospital staff didn’t report death of patient during call system breakdown, report says

Someone admitted to a beleaguered Gallup hospital died this year after being forced to ring an old-fashioned hand bell to call for help instead of being able to use a modern call-light system, a report shows.

The failed call-light system was one of several major issues at the hospital that prompted a group of doctors at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital to unionize. Beginning in March 2021, patients could no longer press a button if they were in their hospital beds and were instead given handbells to ring in emergencies. 

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The malfunctions meant that “staff could not efficiently call a code” on a patient whose condition rapidly deteriorated, according to a July inspection report compiled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and reviewed by Source New Mexico. 

The call-light issue resulted in three “adverse events” in January of this year alone, according to the report. In two instances, the patients survived after being transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. In the third, the patient died once family requested staff cease life-saving measures, according to the report. 

The patient’s death was one of several consequences of mismanagement at the 120-bed facility outlined in a news story published last week in The Nation called “How to Kill A Rural Hospital.” Community Hospital Consulting was hired by the Rehoboth McKinley’s Board of Trustees to run day-to-day operations, but community members and an activist group accuse the corporation of squeezing profits out of the hospital and not understanding the community in which it operates. 

RMCH has seen multiple crises after once being at the frontlines of the nation’s coronavirus outbreak early in the pandemic, setbacks including deficits of millions of dollars, an audit that found potential shady dealings, mass layoffs and the abrupt closures of the birthing unit. 

In the case of the call-light system, the inspection record found that staff did not report the patient’s death or the two other cases to the hospital’s Quality and Risk Committee, which provides reports for review by hospital leadership. 

Additionally, an employee even listed the events as “no harm” done by a staff member. The employee who categorized them that way has since been fired, according to the report. 

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When the call-light system went down in March 2021, doctors at the hospital pooled their money to try to find an interim solution, they previously told Source New Mexico. But the donation was refused, and the system stayed broken until April 2022. 

The hospital’s labor and delivery unit abruptly closed in early October due to a staffing shortage. A year beforehand, the unit had 18 nurses and four doctors. The week of the closure, it had no doctors and four nurses. 

The shutdown sent families scrambling to make last-minute birth arrangements and to find new hospitals, including in Albuquerque, two hours away by car. In the months since, many patients in labor have been airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital. 

It reopened for several months, but on Aug. 3, the labor and delivery unit closed again. It’s not clear from public statements when pregnant patients might be able to seek care there again. 

Concerns with the corporation running the hospital culminated in March with the replacement of CEO Don Smithburg, who split his time between New Mexico and Missouri. Robert Whitaker, who was the previous CEO of Southwest Medical Center in Liberal, Kansas, took over. (Whitaker now lives full-time in Gallup.)

The hospital serves patients coming from rural areas like the Zuni Pueblo and Navajo Nation and is also the only hospital in the region that serves residents who are not members of a Native American tribe. 

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