Journalism in the Public Interest

Spencer Sullivan: His Body a Prison

Spencer Sullivan balances a pre-surgery photograph of himself on his chest. Once a nurse himself, Spencer, 48, is now a quadriplegic and requires round-the-clock care. Click to see an audio slideshow (Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times)

He was once the handsome entrepreneur in the fading newspaper article on his bedroom wall – a former nurse running a temporary nurse agency.

Today Spencer Sullivan, 48, spends his days in a wheelchair at his Laguna Hills home. In 2001, after neck surgery at UC San Francisco Medical Center, two doctors gave similar orders for powerful medications. Instead of questioning the duplication, a nurse gave Sullivan all of the drugs, then didn't check on him as required, state records allege. After suffering a brain injury, Sullivan was rendered quadriplegic.

In the chaotic months that followed, his brother Shane filed a complaint with the state Board of Registered Nursing. The family sued the hospital and eventually settled for $6 million. The case was again reported to the nursing board in 2005, this time by insurers, who attributed $2.4 million of the settlement to temporary nurse Rose McKenzie's actions.

"It's shocking how they never contact you. They never say the nurse was disciplined – nothing," said Sullivan's mother, Carol. "It just makes you wonder, is she out there somewhere taking her job so lightly?"

In April 2008 – 6 1/2 years after the brain injury – the board filed an accusation against McKenzie. She did not respond, and her license was revoked. She's now a nurse in Canada.

"It makes me sad what she did to me," Spencer Sullivan said. "It's like being in jail."

Click to see an audio slideshow about Sullivan

Photo by Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times. Click to see audio slideshow


July 20, 2009, 5:49 p.m.

Mr Charles Ornstein:first of all thank you from the bottom of our souls.Thank you for having pay attention to Veronica´s case and let us collaborate in your investigation.Thank you for your coverage on Spencer´s story,we cannot even figure out how deep and unbeareable is his suffering and his family´s too.We want to send to him our love and solidarity.This investigation is telling us that you deserve each one and every single recognition and important prizes you´ve got along your career.The meticulosity with which you managed your work ,for instance,in Veronica´s case ,asking for every single documentation as witnesses reports,letters submitted to and received from the boards officers and investigators,med records,etc etc,are talking -without any single doubt -about a remarkable professionality .Bravo Charlie. You made big waves that will arise -for sure- big changes indeed. The “silent-hurted- majotity” I´m sure is applauding you effort to lift that awful and heavy black curtain which is (or was ?) veiling the true facts that conducted health care in California to the existing mess. It seems that the river sound is announcing a little tsunami of water and,new refreshing winds to refresh the ambiance,because,paraphrasing Shakespeare,..something smells nasty in californian boards.Many human beings hurted,disabled,killed by ignorance,killed by irresponsible has to stop. By the way, it could be super interesting and a good culmination to your “periodistic work of art” if you do an additional investigation over the Medical Board of California. Perhaps you will get surprising findings.For sure.Same pattern of handling complaints,same dismissing through an easy way. Let´s see how does the authorities of said Board accomplish its duties emerging from the 2005 Final Report of the Enforcement Program Monitor Project,suscribed by Julianne Felmeth and Tomas Papageorge.I am aware that perhaps,we are facing simply cosmetical changes. Maybe now,as a direct consequence of your investigation Veronica´s case and many other cases could be revised by the new authorities in order to establish the due responsibilities of involved wrongdoers. Thank you again.
Roberto Alejandro Glaubach,father of veronica Glaubach,killed by unskilled and ignorant health caregivers (nurses and doctors)at the age of 28,at Huntington Memorial Hospital,Pasadena,Ca. Wrongdoers are still without any punishment,despite unavoidable and more than clear evidence. Another “good” performance coming from those useless boards.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
When Caregivers Harm

When Caregivers Harm: America's Unwatched Nurses

California has failed to protect patients from nurses who are incompetent and dangerous.

The Story So Far

In California, nurses accused of serious wrongdoing have often been left free to practice for years while their cases were being investigated—with patients unaware of the danger.

The board that oversees the state’s registered nurses has taken more than three years, on average, to discipline nurses with histories of drug abuse, negligence, incompetence and violence.

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