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Board Takes No Public Action Against Some King/Drew Nurses

It is no secret that nurses played a central role in the collapse of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

At the troubled hospital near Watts, registered nurses gave the wrong medications, ignored patients in distress, falsified records, slept on the job and turned down the alarms on critically ill patients' vital sign monitors.

From 2003 until the hospital closed in 2007, The Times ran dozens of articles detailing such lapses, government inspectors declared patients in immediate jeopardy, and Los Angeles County suspended or fired many of those involved. Yet, in some cases, California's Board of Registered Nursing has taken no public action, leaving the nurses free to work elsewhere. Those nurses include:

* Linda Ruttlen, who county health officials say brushed aside complaints from 43-year-old Edith Rodriguez in the emergency room in May 2007. Rodriguez writhed on the floor for 45 minutes before she died of a perforated bowel. The incident made national headlines and, more than any other single event, precipitated the hospital's closure.Ruttlen unsuccessfully sued the county for defamation and wrongful termination. She said she was overwhelmed by a difficult caseload and never knew Rodriguez was on the floor. Her lawyer, Michael Harris, said she plans an appeal and has not been contacted by the nursing board.

* Virginia A. Williams, who was fired in April 2006 for allegedly supplying King/Drew employees with CPR certification cards without providing the training.

In 2007, a county hearing officer upheld Williams' dismissal, saying her actions could lead to an "employee's inability to administer CPR in a life-threatening situation at the hospital." In a recent interview Williams denied wrongdoing and said the county set her up. She said she hasn't spoken with anyone from the nursing board.

In other cases, the board ultimately took action, but only years later:

* Sarita Sungcheu was accused of sleeping while overseeing a patient's dialysis. Early one morning in 2005, intensive care nurses heard a King/Drew dialysis patient screaming, "Stop sleeping!" at Sungcheu, according to her county suspension letter. Sungcheu was roused two hours later by the dialysis machine alarm "as blood spurted from [the patient's] dislodged catheter needle," government health inspectors later wrote.

The board didn't file a public accusation against Sungcheu until this April, nearly four years after the incident.

In her resignation letter, Sungcheu said she was not sleeping and described the patient as "abusive, demanding and difficult." Her lawyer, Kenneth Drake, said she believes she has done nothing wrong.

* Wilma Walker was fired in June 2005 because she allegedly failed to check a critically ill patient's heart-rate monitor. She was accused of charting vital signs at a time when he was, in fact, dead. She was suspended the year before for giving an anti-cancer drug to a meningitis patient.

It took the board till September 2007 to file a public accusation against her. At a hearing, Walker admitted making mistakes but said she never knowingly put her patients in danger. A decision is pending.

Vesna Maras, formerly a county prosecutor assigned to review potential criminal cases against King/Drew nurses, said she was struck by the nursing board's lack of vigor. "I didn't get any sense of urgency from them whatsoever," she said.

Read Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber's Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Los Angeles Times on the troubles at King/Drew

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