A Black nurse alleges she was marginalized, isolated and stereotyped because of her race for the two years she worked at one of Colorado’s top hospitals.
The discrimination prompted her termination and “groundless” charges against her, a lawsuit obtained by the Atlanta Black Star alleges.
The lawsuit details the constant racism DonQuenick Joppy had to navigate while she cared for the most fragile patients at The Medical Center of Aurora. She was humiliated and ignored by coworkers, denied growth opportunities, and treated differently from her white peers.
The biggest blow was when she was fired, stripped of her nursing license and criminalized for a 97-year-old patient’s death, the complaint says.
Joppy’s attorneys said a string of “malicious” actions subjected her to a hostile work and retaliation for voicing her complaints. They want the hospital and two top officials to be held accountable and for the nurse to be compensated for her suffering.
Joppy, who was once an award-winning nurse, is unemployed and without permanent housing, her attorneys said. The hospital has denied the claims in the complaint.
“It’s wild,” Joppy said “My life has been turned upside down. … I never killed anyone. I’m a great nurse.”
According to the complaint, Joppy was a three-time nominee of the nursing industry’s top Daisy Award and honored with an excellence award from the American Heart Association for performing CPR and saving a patient’s life.
She received rave reviews, with one recovered patient from the intensive care unit where she worked describing Joppy as “absolutely amazing.” She also received a favorable performance review from her supervisor after her first year at the medical center.
However, the lawsuit alleges that Joppy was not always met with warm regard from other supervisors on the unit. The Black nurse was often yelled at and criticized for things that nonBlack coworkers were not, the complaint says. Joppy said she was assigned three patients in the ICU with no backup when the nurse-to-patient ratio should have been two to one.
Her immediate supervisors ignored her complaints, the lawsuit says.
The treatment got so bad that Joppy tried to transfer out of the ICU. The complaint alleges that that effort was shut down when hospital leadership put her on a “retaliatory” performance improvement plan.
Joppy was chastised for improper body language and tone and was instructed to “remain respectful towards the charge nurses and any other employee within the hospital.”
In one instance, a charge nurse, Michael Oleszczuk, sent an email announcing an opportunity for staff to get training on caring for patients with heart problems. When Joppy inquired, Oleszczuk allegedly told her working with heart patients required “much deeper critical thinking and much better organizational skills.”
On another occasion, Oleszczuk told Joppy that since she was good at cleaning, she should “clean his house and clip his dog’s toenails,” Joppy’s claim details.
According to the lawsuit, a white patient’s family also accused Joppy of stealing the patient’s credit card and buying a stethoscope. Without conducting an investigation, human resources restricted the Black nurse to one section of the ICU and prohibited her from going into the locker room or main break room with other employees, the lawsuit says.
Human resources then thanked Joppy for not making a “big fuss” about it.
But that did not compare to what happened in May 2019 after Joppy stayed after her shift to help another nurse carry out a terminally ill patient’s “end of life” instructions.
The instructions to remove all of the supporting equipment keeping the patient with septic shock and “nonsurvivable” multi-organ failure alive came from a doctor per the family’s request. The doctor told another nurse who took over the 97-year-old man’s care after Joppy shift was over, and that nurse delegated the doctor’s orders to Joppy.
Joppy called a respiratory therapist to remove the patient’s ventilator, but the therapist was busy and walked Joppy through turning off the ventilator instead, the lawsuit says.
He came and disconnected the ventilator shortly after but failed to remove the intubation tube, which was his responsibility. Sometime later, the other nurse Karen Welter cuffed the tube, and the patient died, the lawsuit says. His death certificate reportedly says he died of natural causes, more specifically, septic shock caused by pneumonia and bowel infraction.
A supervising nurse later raised questions about how the staff handled the procedure. After an investigation, the hospital fired Joppy for completing the measures without an order in the patient’s chart and not waiting on the respiratory therapist to arrive.
Hospital officials referred the case to the attorney general’s office, and Joppy was charged with manslaughter, negligent death of an at-risk person and neglect of an at-risk person a year after she was fired, the lawsuit says.
In September, nearly a year after the attorney general decided to prosecute Joppy, all charges were dismissed “in the interest of justice.”
“I took this case on because I thought it was particularly egregious that they would do this to someone’s life,” Joppy’s attorney Jennifer Robinson said. “She’s pretty much homeless now and hasn’t recovered since all of this happened. Who is going to hire a nurse who has manslaughter charges against her, even if they are dropped? It’s just not cool to treat people this way.”
The Medical Center of Aurora’s director of marketing and public relations, Rachel Robinson, told The Denver Post that the allegations made against the hospital in the complaint are unfounded.
“The lawsuit that has been filed against The Medical Center of Aurora is without merit and is a tactic by a disgruntled former colleague,” Rachel Robinson said in a statement.
Robinson said the attorney general had access to the incident report through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and “made the independent decision to investigate the occurrence involving Ms. Joppy on its own.”
“We have the utmost respect for our patients and their family’s end-of-life decisions, and we work hard to honor those decisions,” Rachel Robinson said. “When processes designed to ensure the comfort and dignity of patients are not followed, we take appropriate action, including reporting to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, as required.”
However, in an email quoted in the complaint, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, Human Resources Vice President Katie Weihe, said the hospital was “partnering” with the attorney general’s office on the criminal case.