A former nurse at Cooper University Health Care alleges that the health system mishandled a 2016 outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria at its neonatal intensive care unit in Camden, leading to additional infections.
In a lawsuit filed in Middlesex County, Catherine Tanksley-Bowe says she was fired after a month on the job for raising concerns about what she described as insufficient cleaning of patient rooms.
Hospital officials countered that she was a disgruntled employee who was terminated for unrelated issues, saying her lawsuit was "shameful" and contained "numerous inaccuracies." The New Jersey Department of Health confirmed that it had found several deficiencies in an initial Aug. 4 inspection, but it said Cooper had since implemented all of its directives for preventing future infections.
"The hospital implemented the correction actions directed by the department," the state agency said in a statement. "The department determined there was no further risk."
Eight infants were infected with MRSA, a type of staph bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic methicillin, according to the state. Two of the patients died, but state officials said they could not necessarily attribute the deaths to the infections, as intensive-care patients "can be medically fragile."
The hospital identified an additional 15 patients who were carriers of the bacteria but did not become ill, the Health Department said.
The state directed the hospital to separate babies that were carriers of the bacteria from those who were not, and to ensure proper hand-washing and cleaning of equipment.
In the lawsuit, Tanksley-Bowe said that four days after the state inspection, she told hospital officials that some of those measures had not yet been implemented. She alleged that three additional patients became infected as a result.
Tanksley-Bowe was fired three days later, on Aug. 11, according to the lawsuit, filed in Superior Court by the Swartz Swidler firm, of Cherry Hill. She seeks lost wages, punitive damages, and damages for emotional distress.
Manali Arora, an attorney for the firm, declined to comment.
In a follow-up inspection on Nov. 4, the hospital was found to be in compliance, the state said.
In a statement, Cooper officials said they had notified the state about the MRSA infections and had cooperated fully.
Tanksley-Bowe, who has a Ph.D., warned Cooper she would file a lawsuit unless they paid her "hundreds of thousands of dollars," the health system said.
"Cooper refused to pay because her claims are without merit," the health system said. "She then filed this lawsuit. Cooper will vigorously defend itself from this shameful attempt to profit from an unfortunate situation."
The lawsuit was first reported by NJ.com.
The MRSA infection rate that the hospital reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention matches the national average, according to a comparison published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, covering the calendar year 2015.
The MRSA infection rate for New Jersey hospitals as a whole was slightly worse than the national benchmark.