My Take on Nurse vs. Detective

By | September 7, 2017 | 3 Comments

By now, most people have formed an opinion about the emergency-department nurse who was arrested, manhandled out of the hospital, handcuffed, and held in a police car before being released without charges being filed. Her crime: she refused the order of a detective to draw a blood specimen from an unconscious accident victim.

The nurse, her supervisor, and the others in the emergency department ‒ apparently including a physician ‒ repeatedly informed the detective, and the uniformed officers also present, that hospital policy required that to draw a blood specimen, the patient either had to (1) consent, or (2) be under arrest, or (3) the police had to have a warrant. This was based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Nevertheless, the detective insisted, and when he was not obeyed, he arrested and manhandled the nurse, thus interfering with patient care in the emergency department. These are my thoughts.

On a theoretical level, the Constitution is involved, specifically the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. Clearly, this is of utmost importance to all of us.

But on a practical level, my problem is with the detective’s contempt for the chain of command. He acted as if he were in his house, when in fact he was in someone else’s house.

When I walk into the police station, neglect to check with the watch commander, and start ordering his officers to violate their policy manual, then the detective can walk into my emergency department, neglect to check with me, and start ordering my physicians and nurses to violate our policy manual ‒ but not until then.

Short of outright mutiny, there is nothing so destructive of discipline and good order as an outsider barging in, ignoring the chain of command, and ordering around subordinates without the approval of their superior ‒ and in this case, in direct violation of his instructions.

No organization, military or civilian, law-enforcement or medical, can function properly under such chaotic conditions, or perhaps even function at all. One might expect that a police officer with years of experience in a paramilitary-type organization would understand this. In this case, one would be wrong.

Perhaps worst of all, despite all the disorder and commotion he caused, the detective did not succeed in getting the blood specimen he wanted. As is so often the case, excessive force and unreasoning bluster failed to achieve anything except more disruption.

The lesson, as I see it, is this: If you want others to respect your organization and aims, show respect for their organization and aims. Respect, like loyalty, resembles an electric circuit. The current has to flow out, and then flow back again, or the circuit is broken ‒ and the lights go out.

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  • Interesting and very informative. It is interesting to see the deterioration of someone’s personality when they have too much power. Exactly what Milgram was measuring in the 1960s to understand Nazi domination over ordinary people. See

  • Of all the places that a cop might want to disrupt, the very last one on earth would be a hospital emergency department – where he or his buddies would be taken if the worst happened. That the detective ignored this obvious fact might suggest that he has psychological problems impairing his ability to think logically, or to control his own behavior.

    Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When we were finishing our internships, a nurse asked a colleague of mine how it would feel to be a resident next month. He replied, “A little power corrupts me absolutely.” That says it all.

  • The patient in this case apparently was an accident victim. The car the police were chasing crashed into the truck this man was driving, causing a fire. The man was burned and comatose. So why were the police so insistent on getting his blood specimen?

    My guess (and it is just a guess) is that the police feared a huge lawsuit against the city by this man if he lived, or by his survivors if he died. No one claimed he caused the accident or did anything wrong, so he wasn’t under arrest. But if the police could show that he had alcohol or drugs in his blood, this might reduce the amount of money he would receive. For example, if the court decided he was 20% responsible for the accident by not paying attention because of alcohol, he might receive 20% less money.

    To make matters even worse, the accident victim was a reserve police officer from Rigby, Idaho, working his full-time job as a truck driver. The Rigby Police Department issued an official thank-you to Nurse Wubbels.

    In short, this likely was not a normal forensic blood draw, meant to prove a DUI. It was a legal maneuver to try to throw blame on an apparently blameless accident victim, for financial reasons. As such, this case went beyond the above-noted Supreme Court decision, and fell under normal patient confidentiality – specifically HIPAA, the federal law protecting confidentiality.

    If I’m right, the detective was not acting in his capacity as a police officer, enforcing the law. He was acting as an agent of the city, attempting to get damaging information on a man who might file a lawsuit. Morally, this is similar to a tabloid paying a hospital worker to get “dirt” on a celebrity, in order to sell more copies.

    The nurse, Alex Wubbels, was a two-time Olympic skier who had ranked ninth in the world. Perhaps the self-discipline and dedication required for such an achievement prepared her for this challenge. Or perhaps it was a religious background. Or maybe it was just her strong personality. In any case, we can be grateful for people like her. They keep the bullies from winning.

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