GLENDALE, Calif. -- Glendale Adventist Medical Center has been reeling from allegations that respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar may have killed as many as 50 terminally ill patients.
The 396-bed hospital, an affiliate of Roseville, Calif.-based Adventist Health, has been the center of worldwide media attention and of considerable staff unrest. It fired not only Saldivar but also four respiratory therapists who worked with him. The hospital also announced the resignations of two supervisors involved with the respiratory-care unit. The hospital wouldn't disclose the reasons for the departures beyond Saldivar's.
The 28-year-old Saldivar, who has worked at the hospital since 1989, was fired March 13 after telling Glendale police he killed scores of terminally ill patients by removing their oxygen or administering lethal doses of medication. No charges have been filed, because investigators have not produced evidence to corroborate Saldivar's claims.
Late last week, Saldivar reportedly recanted his story.
Said to be hiding with his family, he failed to appear in Los Angeles County Superior Court to contest the suspension of his respiratory therapist's license by the California Respiratory Care Board.
In preparation for conducting autopsies, investigators have begun exhuming bodies of patients Saldivar claims to have killed.
The hospital put its 43-member respiratory staff on paid leave to free them for questioning by Glendale homicide investigators.
It hired a dozen temporary replacements, but the regular staff returned to work last week following questioning.
Spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez said Glendale Adventist staff are working with police to audit the hospital's drug inventory.
The media interest led the hospital to beef up its public relations operation, despite its generally tight-lipped response to the situation. Gonzalez did confirm the hospital had hired an outside public relations firm but declined to give its name or explain its role in handling the crisis.
Gonzalez said she has been contacted at all hours of the night by reporters, even receiving pages from overseas media outlets at 4 a.m.
"It's been overwhelming," Gonzalez said last week, just as NBC "Nightly News" was broadcasting a report on the case.
"We have a crisis communication plan, and we've put it in place," she said.
Healthcare public relations experts observed that most hospitals have a crisis plan to respond to such unexpected occurrences as natural disasters and crimes committed on the premises. They agree that what has occurred at Glendale Adventist is about the worst possible scenario.
"It's a huge crisis, one that requires almost continuous damage control," said David Langness, director of health sciences communications at the University of California at Los Angeles.
A proper plan for a hospital in crisis includes "digging down really deep and finding out exactly what happened, what are the facts, the laws and the rules broken," said Mary Turk, president of Turk & Associates, a healthcare public relations firm in Claremont, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. "You need to then figure out what information can be on the record and what exactly the rumors are."
Turk added that it was too early to tell whether the crisis would cast a long-term pall on the hospital.
Langness said the hospital has handled the crisis well so far but might be called to task for failing to report the findings of its own investigation of Saldivar's claim last year.
So far, public confidence in the hospital appears to have held steady. Gonzalez noted that no patients or their families have asked for transfers from the facility.
-- With Associated Press