BOSTON — Kirsten Ransom almost didn’t believe it when a friend at work told her the news.
Ransom’s company, Steward Health Care, announced May 14th it was donating tens of thousands of gowns to Massachusetts health officials and first responders. For weeks, Ransom and other nurses at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton say they had been reusing their own gowns, a practice they said would have been unheard of before the pandemic.
“I’m like, ‘They what?' They donated 50,000 gowns? Where are they donating these gowns to? We’re reusing our gowns,” said Ransom.
Steward’s decision was heavily criticized by nurses, labeled a publicity stunt by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), and resulted in a dispute between the union and the company.
“Our members’ frustration…seemed to have a reached a tipping point,” MNA President Donna Kelly-Williams wrote in a May 19th letter to Rhett Cavicchi, Vice President of Steward’s Labor Relations.
Kelly-Williams said nurses at Steward’s ten Massachusetts hospitals are desperate for new personal protective equipment, and were unaware Steward had a stockpile of gowns.
“I have listened—as have you—as staff have described mortal danger in not being able to replace masks for days and being told to re-use contaminated protective gowns,” Kelly-Williams wrote to Cavicchi.
“Accepting as true Steward’s public statements of having warehouses filled with more than a million pieces of PPE, we ask you again to allocate it and stop unsafely rationing personal protective equipment,” she wrote.
At the time, Steward’s donation drew praise from Gov. Charlie Baker, who, in a news conference, said the gowns would go to first responders in Taunton, Brockton, Dorchester, Mattapan and Methuen.
"We’re also grateful to Steward for this partnership and their ability to bring this much needed equipment to the front lines,” Baker said on May 14th.
The company assembled a promotional video, obtained by 25 Investigates, to coincide with the gown donation, boasting its PPE stockpile.
“When early models showed a potential COVID-19 surge, Steward Health Care began preparations,” Steward said in the video.
“Steward launched a substantial program to acquire and stockpile personal protective equipment…And created strategic, temporary distribution hubs for personal protective equipment,” according to Steward’s video, which shows boxes and pallets of PPE.
The video, posted on social media and then later removed, was panned by nurses who were under the impression there was a PPE shortage within the company.
"There's not even words for it about how people felt,” Ransom said. "Of course everybody lost it. Like, we're reusing them, how can you give stuff away?"
Nurses at Carney Hospital in Dorchester said they’ve also been reusing masks and gowns.
"They should be taking care of their own people first,” said Peg Colon, a registered nurse at Carney Hospital. “The bottom line is we shouldn’t give away gowns. If we have plenty of gowns we shouldn’t give away gowns if our nurses are asked to reuse them.”
A Steward Health Care spokesperson told 25 Investigates the video is being re-edited and was taken down for “licensing issues.”
“Many of the [PPE] orders placed in March arrived from international vendors last week and have been distributed to hospitals across our network," Nicholas Puleo wrote in an email. "Only after restocking with this new supply, were we also able to make a donation to other frontline workers through our partnership with the state.”
According to Kelly-Williams, things got heated during a May 18th conference call between union members and Cavicchi.
“I am told that on Monday when MNA St. Elizabeth’s committee members raised [concerns] with you in a conference call, you lost your temper and yelled, ‘How dare you! That wasn’t a publicity stunt. It is offensive that you would criticize this donation to protect the first responders of Massachusetts,” Kelly-Williams wrote in the May 19th letter to Cavicchi.
Kelly-Williams said Cavicchi did not respond to her letter, then cancelled a scheduled meeting with nurses.
"You can just imagine how outrageous it was to have nurses that were being told by Steward administrators to reuse a gown over and over again, and then to see them donating the very gowns they were told to reuse in a way that put both of them and their patients at risk,” Kelly-Williams told 25 Investigates.
“It just never made sense in the beginning. What are you holding anything back for? This is when we’re in crisis,” said Karen Skarbek, a registered nurse at Carney.
Steward Health Care owns 34 hospitals in nine states and is the “largest private, tax-paying hospital operator in the country,” according to its website.
“[Steward’s] headquarters [is] in Texas...But they’re not at our bedside, you know what I mean? It’s very easy to be in Texas and tell me what I’m supposed to do in Dorchester,” Skarbek said.
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