Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Kay Tillow, June 23, 2006. Interview U-0180. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The case of Jane Gentry as hospital administration intimidation of union activism

Tillow speaks at length regarding the continued struggle of the NPO to organize nurses and health care workers in Louisville, Kentucky from the late 1990s, when they failed to block Norton Healthcare, Inc. from receiving a bond from the City Commission as part of their effort to obtain bargaining rights. In particular, Tillow discusses how the NPO worked in defense of Jane Gentry, a nurse who had been fired because of her union activism. Tillow describes the circumstances of Gentry's dismissal, as well as the NPO's long struggle to vindicate her of wrongful discrimination. Later in the interview she describes similar grievances that the NPO pursued on the behalf of nurses.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Kay Tillow, June 23, 2006. Interview U-0180. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Getting back to the bargaining order, was it Norton at that point or no, it was still Columbia when that came through?
KAY TILLOW:
Well, let's see. You know, there would be years in between these appeals. At the time of the election, it was Columbia HCA. Then when the bargaining order came down, what was it? I think it was still Columbia HCA and then it was purchased by Alliant, which then changed its name to Norton. That purchase was, I think, in '97. No, '98 maybe. '97 or '98.
SARAH THUESEN:
What eventually came of that order?
KAY TILLOW:
The bargaining order was appealed to the full board in Washington, the labor board. The labor board overturned the bargaining order and basically, the reasoning they said was they didn't think it would be upheld in the sixth circuit court. Then they set out other remedies and another election as a substitute. Well, that hasn't happened yet, because then they fired Jane Gentry and we had to battle on that case. And oh, we did wage a battle on it and finally, finally, finally won it. But that was their effort to say, "Not only will we fire you, we will take your license away. You will never practice as a nurse." That was a huge threat to just silence everyone and to just create a blanket of fear so no one would ever speak out on behalf of the patients again. That was a threat and it was amazing that we did win that case, because when we first filed the charge, the labor board in Cincinnati threw it out: insufficient evidence. We said, "Oh no, this can't be." So we took a carload of nurses to Cincinnati and we said, "Look, let us explain to you. This is one of the key people who has spoken out greatly and this is no accident that she's fired. This is such a minor accusation over a cc of normal saline, which nurses use everyday. There's no harm to the patient. What is this all about?" They said at the time, what's his name? Ahearn, who was the board's director at the time in Cincinnati, said we hadn't shown animus, which is one of those things. So we said, "Oh yeah, we will show animus. We will go back and we will prepare a document." We put together a paper that outlined, had fifty-seven instances documented by newspaper clips and leaflets and letters and stuff, all of the things that we could come up with that showed complete and total hatred of the union on the part of the company. So we said, "It can be animus." He still threw it out and we appealed it to Washington. They threw it out. So it was looking pretty grim, because the first thing we had tried to do was get other nurses to stand with her and we had buttons made that said, "Where's Jane?" We were trying, because of course, we believe as organizers that the best way that you overcome this is getting people to stand together and oppose it. Of course, we've done that on many occasions. We put Sandy Sutherland [Tillow later notes that she meant to refer to Sandy Sheffield here] back to work with a picket line at Columbia. So we have done it. We put two nurses at University Hospital back to work with efforts. So we've reversed a lot of things along the way. Well, we weren't able to get anybody to speak out for Jane, because people were petrified that they had reported her to the Board of Nursing. That's like the worst thing you could do to a nurse. So we had to win this battle. We just kept at and they kept throwing it out and we appealed to Washington. They threw it out again.
SARAH THUESEN:
Why was the NLRB so resistant, do you think, to this case?
KAY TILLOW:
Well, I think that one, that's kind of their norm. In other words, you have to present pretty much overwhelming evidence to get them to take a case. Their norm is not to do it. I would say that that's true always. On this particular one, I don't know. I think that well, by this time probably, the director didn't like us, because we were not agreeing that this was okay. And everybody at the board knew us. See, all of those board agents had dealt with our cases and we'd been through trials with them and everything. So we had a credibility there and people knew that if we said it was true, it was true. If we say we had majority of cards, we could list them. We kept accurate records and we were good. He was probably by this time a little bit irked with us and they really have the ability to just throw it out. I mean, they just say there's insufficient evidence. See, you can find an NLRB case that says everything. There's some case somewhere that says it, so you can find the basis for it. So we appealed to Washington, but in the meantime, we had to fight the case at the Board of Nursing over her license. That went to trial.
SARAH THUESEN:
Was that a state Board of Nursing?
KAY TILLOW:
Board of Nursing, yeah. Well, one of the ugly things is that in Kentucky, if you get reported to the Board of Nursing, they immediately put an alert on your license so that that's reported to any potential employer, so that before there's been innocence or guilt, you've got an alert on your license that says there's been charges filed against it. It becomes very hard to get a job even before you've gone through this thing. But we worked on it and actually, there were two things that were key to it. One was that we found a case where a judge had ruled that the Board had insufficient evidence to take action against a nurse's license and thereby had thrown it out. It was the Ward case and we went down and got it. I got the brief that the lawyer had written on it, because the lawyer that Jane got for her Board of Nursing didn't know anything about it and basically told her she couldn't win, there was no basis for overturning it except for procedural. We said, "That's not true. We got this case." So we really did all the legal work on it. I mean, we got the case. We forced the attorney to fight it on this basis. The other key was Gemma. Gemma got Vince to call the doctor that was on duty the night that the incident occurred. Do you know the story about the incident?
SARAH THUESEN:
Well, tell me again. The details of it are a little fuzzy in my mind.
KAY TILLOW:
Jane was working on the open heart unit. She was a cardiac care nurse, which is not the surgical patients but the heart attack patients, the stent patients, etcetera. She was taking care of a patient who was like eighty or ninety pounds and had had a catheterization and a stent placed. It was a very nervous patient, so when she would wake up, she would be crying. Jane would comfort her. She was very experienced with these kinds of patients, held hand pressure when she removed the, oh I can't think of the name, but the tubing that goes into the groin for it. The woman would cry every time she woke up and would say she was in terrible pain. So at one point, Jane was flushing the line, because aggrastat was going through the line at a very short pace, so you had to flush it to be able to see if it was dripping at all. The patient expressed relief when Jane flushed the line, so Jane, as a part of her assessment to the physician, she reported that the patient is expressing pain. She says, "There is no indication that it's cardiacrelated. And when I flushed the line, she expressed relief." She says, "I think that anxiety is the cause of it." And the doctor went in and evidently, he confirmed that, because he wrote out a prescription for Xanax, which is an anxiety drug. But it's that thing, the flushing of the line and the saying that the patient expressed relief, which was really a part of her nursing assessment, that became the basis for what they did to her. When the patient went to sleep, Jane went off the floor and left her in the charge of an agency nurse, inexperienced. When Jane came back from her lunch, the agency nurse says, "Oh, it was terrible. As soon as you left, she woke up. She was in pain. I didn't know what to do. So I ask another nurse and she said give her morphine and so I gave her morphine." So Jane says, "You gave my patient morphine? There was no order for morphine. She's only ninety pounds. That's very dangerous. There's no order for that. Why?" So Jane went looking for the order, because the nurse said, "I don't know. Becky said she'd get the order, she would write the order." So Jane finds it and it has been written above where Jane had signed off. In charting terms, this other nurse has made it appear that a doctor's order was there when Jane signed it off that wasn't. So Jane went to confront that nurse and "Why did write above my name? You can't do that. If you get an order from a doctor, you write a new space down below. You don't make it look like it was done by somebody else. It was an order taken by somebody else." So Jane was furious about that and confronted that nurse and that nurse had not even signed her name on it. So Jane says, "Well, who did you talk to?" She says well, she didn't know who she talked to, but she had gotten the order. Jane never believed that she had talked to a doctor. She believed that she had simply written it in and given the morphine and gone on. That was what, Jane reported that whole thing that we couldn't have a situation where nurses wrote above your name and put in orders without talking to a doctor and this was a terrible thing and this shouldn't be. No one paid any attention to it. She tried to report it to the charge nurse. The charge nurse said he was too busy to write it up and send it to the supervisor. So Jane did that. She wrote it up and sent it to the supervisor. I mean, there was no to do over this, nothing. A week later, she was called in supposedly on an investigation of this and they had turned Jane saying that the patient expressed relief when she flushed the line into Jane had given a placebo rather than morphine, which she should have given to save the person's life, which didn't make any sense. But that was the basis of the charge, that Jane had illegally given a placebo without a doctor's order. The hospital tried to make it that she should have taken the action to call a doctor and get a morphine order, which we eventually proved that that was garbage. But that was what the hospital was accusing. They were saying that Jane had improperly responded to the woman's pain.
SARAH THUESEN:
What was really behind the hospital wanting to fire Jane Gentry?
KAY TILLOW:
Jane had written a lot in our newsletter, the Vent, and she wrote a lot about job descriptions and how dangerous it was to bring people into a unit where they had no experience, to stretch people into areas where they had no expertise, that it was important to keep nurses in the position of making these positions and not to push more and more of the work onto nursing assistants or people who didn't have a background to make the nursing judgments that had to be made. She was outspoken on that and of course, you can see by what she did. I mean, she wasn't going to just let it go, that when something happened that was dangerous, actually dangerous to the patient and in total violation of the rules of charting that are done for safety, well, she wasn't going to let it go. They didn't like that. They kind of like things to slide and all. She was an officer in the union and she was outspoken and she had distributed things for our CEUs and other things there at the hospital. So they were out to get her and everybody knew why it was. We had to fight. We had to go after them for that.