A letter to all North Dakotans
To all North Dakota Veterans, their families and friends:
The purpose of this letter is to plead with fellow veterans and fellow North Dakotans to speak up and demand change so that the North Dakota Veteran’s Home (NDVH) in Lisbon, North Dakota will again become a vital part of the positive way we care for our veterans and show our appreciation to them.
The NDVH has been a part of our state heritage for almost 125 years. In May of 2011, a new facility opened with 52 nursing home beds and 98 basic care beds. I worked at the Vet’s Home for three years, from July of 2014 to July of 2017. When I started, the facility was full. When I left, the census in the basic care units had dropped by 25%, a staggering decrease for a beautiful, new state of the art facility and in a state with over 49,000 veterans.
Without significant change, I believe that the decline will continue. When I started working at the Vet’s Home, I was told by co-workers that if I complained about anything, there would be retaliation. As a veteran myself, I chose to ignore their advice and I became a vocal advocate for the veterans. In my three years at the Vet’s Home, I never received a complaint about my work performance. But I was under constant attack because I could not be silenced.
I could fill pages with what I saw and experienced, most of which had a very detrimental impact on the care and services the veterans received. I could fill pages with the policies and procedures that were ignored. I have documentation to support every complaint I made as well as documentation to refute the accusations made against me. Here are some examples: Mold continued to grow in the resident dining rooms for 5 months after it was brought to the supervisor’s attention because the necessary daily cleaning was not being done by all staff. Some of the staff did a very poor job cleaning rooms and/or cleaned them in an unsanitary manner. Some staff did a very poor job with food preparation and did not follow basic food safety practices. Requests from staff for more training in food preparation techniques were ignored. Food intended for the residents was not made available to them and was instead allowed to rot. Staff would often refer to the residents behind their backs in derogatory and demeaning ways. It was not uncommon for me to hear them referred to by co-workers as pigs, brats or big babies.
In February of 2017, in another attempt to silence me, I was forbidden to 1) put anything in writing, 2) send e-mails, 3) leave a phone message or 4) talk to anyone other than my immediate supervisor and that had to be face-to-face. The only message I could leave on her phone was to ask her to call me. Therefore, the only person I could talk to was the same person who had ignored all of the concerns I had brought to her attention including the on-going problem with mold. I was threatened with termination if I did not abide by these dictates.
I filed grievances first with the administrator who denied them. I then filed them with the governing board. At a meeting I was asked to attend in March of 2017, I discovered that one of the grievances had been lost and some had not been read. At one point a board member asked if he could make a motion to ignore me or words to that affect. Even though there was no investigation, the grievances were denied by the governing board.
I then appealed to the North Dakota Human Resource Management Services and an administrative law judge was assigned to the case. Through it all, the attacks by my supervisor and the director of nursing continued and intensified. The assistant state attorney who was assigned to represent the NDVH tried to get my appeal dismissed. As I read his lengthy document requesting dismissal, it became apparent that the administrator and the director of nursing had distorted the facts and had withheld key information from him. I responded with documentation to refute his arguments.
In May of 2017, I submitted a report of perceived neglect surrounding the death of a resident. The neglect did not cause his death but he died without dignity as a result. I wanted to make sure that no other veteran had to die in such an undignified and sad manner. Shortly after that I went on a family medical leave due to the illness and subsequent death of my mother.
Several weeks after my return, in late June, I received a written reprimand for filing the report of neglect back in early May. The report of neglect was in writing and I had been forbidden to put anything in writing. (I knew of no other way to file such a report.) I was stunned that I was being punished for something we are mandated by law to do. It was also late but I had explained why it was late when I submitted it. The next morning I called the NDVH’s director of social services to ask her if I really could be punished for doing what the law says I must. She refused to answer my question. That afternoon I received a written reprimand for calling her since I had been forbidden to call anyone.
That was my breaking point. I could not and would not continue to work in an organization as unhealthy and dysfunctional as the NDVH. When I was offered a job several weeks later in food service at another health care facility, I accepted the job and submitted my resignation. Unfortunately, my appeal was then dismissed since I was no longer a state employee.
Six months have passed. I like my new job very much but I have not forgotten the veterans who live at the NDVH now or might in the future. In my letter to the administrative law judge refuting the state’s request to dismiss my appeal dated July 3, 2017, I ended with the following paragraph:
“Our Resident Heroes deserve a home where: 1) they are always treated with dignity and in a way worthy of Heroes, 2) the standards are set very high, 3) problems like the growth of mold are dealt with immediately, 4) all staff follow policy so that resident rooms are always cleaned in a thorough and sanitary way, 5) all staff receive the training necessary to ensure that food is consistently prepared in a safe and appetizing manner and 6) there is sufficient supervision so that employees do not get away with not doing their job, sometimes for years.”
Since my appeal with the State of North Dakota was dismissed, I am now appealing to Veterans and all North Dakotans that we combine our voices and insist on change. To begin with, new leadership is desperately needed both at the NDVH and on the governing board. Contact your state legislators, contact the governor, contact veterans’ organizations. These veterans fought for us. We need to now fight for them.