Nurse Accused of Breaking Patient Fingers Acquitted of Charges
Nancy Waller, 67, was head nurse at an assisted living facility in New Boston when she was accused of breaking two fingers of a patient in residence. The alleged incident took place on December 23, 2020, and state authorities pressed charges in April 2021. Waller was a retired nurse who returned to the Rose Meadows living facility during the pandemic to help with the increased demand to the facility.
The state accused Waller of breaking two fingers of then 57-year-old Steven Hall, a formerly employed man who had experienced brain damage following an opioid overdose, reported Union Leader. The state accused Waller of breaking Hall’s fingers after he would not let go of his call bell, while Waller’s defense maintained that Hall’s fingers were injured in a fall. She was also charged with preventing outside medical authorities from examining Hall.
A jury in Hillsborough County deliberated for two hours before declaring Waller to be not guilty of four charges: two felonies and two misdemeanors. If she would have been found guilty, Waller could have faced up to 14 years in prison.
Now that she has been cleared, Waller is trying to get her nursing license reinstated.
"She had an unblemished work history prior to these allegations, that is the note she would like to end her career on," her daughter-in-law Christina Waller told Yahoo News in an email.
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The Incident and Charges
Union Leader described that Hall, the patient involved in the alleged incident, had a “death grip” around the call bell and would not release it. Nurses testified that they were afraid Hall would place the call bell in his mouth and choke on it.
When they couldn’t get him to release it, state authorities accused Waller of physically removing his fingers from the bell and breaking two fingers in the process. The charges came after Hall’s daughter, Christina Lally, told authorities that Waller confessed Waller had pried his fingers off the call bell, breaking them.
Union Leader also reported that other workers at the living facility that were interviewed by local police admitted that Waller did admit to physically removing Hall’s fingers off the call button. However, despite reports that Waller did physically remove Hall’s fingers from the call button, the defense—and Waller—maintained that it was not her actions that broke his fingers, but a fall he had taken earlier in the day.
Hall apparently fell from his bed earlier in the night prior to the call-bell incident. A nursing assistant and another caregiver found Hall on the ground after hearing a thump when he hit the floor.
Although the two workers who found him looked him over and asked him if he was hurt—and he said he was fine—they also admitted in court that they had not followed proper procedure for a patient fall protocol. Because of this, defense maintained that no one initially noticed his hand had been injured and that the bruising and swelling in his hand intensified as the day progressed.
Following the charges brought on her, Waller agreed to a voluntary suspension of her nursing license for two years, but her daughter-in-law has told media outlets that Waller would like her license restored as a matter of “principle.” She claims Waller was vilified online such as in the Tweet below and wants her reputation cleared after a lifetime spent working as a nurse.
Following her trial, Yahoo News reported that Attorney General John Formella’s office told them that they were “disappointed in the outcome” from the jury and that the state Board of Nursing would ultimately decide if Waller will have her license reinstated.
Response from Nurses
While Waller may have faced criticism during her initial charges, the response to her trial now seems largely supportive from many nurses online. “Poor thing. This is the problem with nursing boards,” wrote one commenter on Facebook in response to her story. “You are guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. I hope she can sue this accuser for false accusations. and lost wages.
“She should sue for lost wages, slander and everything else she can, take that money & retire,” wrote another. “The abuse of healthcare staff has got to stop!”
Others pointed out how this case highlights some of the challenges surrounding nurses being criminally charged. For instance, one commenter pointed out that for nurses, the expectation is “guilty until proven innocent,” which means that if a nurse is accused of something like a crime on a patient, the expectation is that they’ll have their nursing license taken away while being investigated and not the other way around.
Another pointed out how the case is ironic, given how difficult the rules surrounding a nurse’s rights are to protect themselves, such as not being able to press charges if a patient abuses them. The regulations surrounding the ability to press charges against a patient are still ongoing and especially during the pandemic, some nurse groups took steps to better solidify what nurses are allowed to do when patient assault is a real threat.
For instance, the Michigan Nurses Association fought to make assaulting a nurse an automatic felony in 2020, much like it is if you assault a police officer. Some say the history of the nursing industry as female-dominated means that protections are especially lacking.
It’s not entirely clear what Waller’s plans are if her nursing license is reinstated, such as if she would return to work, but it sounds like it is important to her that her reputation is cleared and she lives the rest of her life with the title and license she earned in 1987.
"Nancy just happened to be the scapegoat at the facility she worked in," her daughter-in-law warned Yahoo readers. "I think all health care professionals should be aware that this could happen to anyone."
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