Hidden Camera Shows how WWII Veteran Died After Calling for Help, Gasping for Air
A decorated World War II veteran died gasping for breath while staff at his nursing home laughed in front of him, according to hidden camera video revealed in a lawsuit against the facility.
James Dempsey, 89, of Woodstock, Ga., called for help six times Feb. 27, 2014, before becoming unconscious while gasping for air, according to the video, released to WXIA-TV after lawyers representing Northeast Atlanta Health and Rehabilitation were unsuccessful in asking a DeKalb County judge to keep the material sealed.
Dempsey's survivors include two sons and two grandchildren. Family members had installed the camera in Dempsey's room before his death, and because of nursing home officials' actions after his death, it is clear that his family would not have known what happened without their own surveillance.
The nursing home's lawyers attempted, then withdrew, an appeal to the Georgia State Supreme Court to keep the video under wraps.
Georgia state records show nursing home staff found Dempsey unresponsive at 5:28 a.m. ET. Staff took almost an hour before calling 911 at 6:25 a.m.
In a video deposition included in the lawsuit records, former nursing supervisor Wanda Nuckles told the family’s lawyer, Mike Prieto, how she rushed to Dempsey’s room when a nurse alerted her that Dempsey had stopped breathing. As she was questioned, she did not know about the camera that had recorded her actions.
Prieto: “From the time you came in, you took over doing chest compressions, … correct?”
Prieto: “Until the time paramedics arrive, you were giving CPR continuously?”
However, the video shows no one performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation when Nuckles entered the room. She also did not immediately start CPR herself.
When a different nurse responded, that woman, whose name was not released, also failed to check any of Dempsey’s vital signs. When Nuckles saw the video clip, she said she would have reprimanded the nurse for the way she responded to Dempsey.
She called the hidden-camera video “sick.”
“Sir, that was an honest mistake,” Nuckles said in the recorded deposition when confronted with the video evidence. “I was just basing everything on what I normally do.”
When nurses had difficulty getting Dempsey’s oxygen machine operational, Nuckles and others could be heard laughing.
Prieto: “Ma’am, was there something funny that was happening?”
Nuckles: “I can’t even remember all that, as you can see.”
Dempsey's family recently agreed to a settlement with Northeast Atlanta Health and Rehabilitation and declined to be interviewed because of its terms. Dempsey had been married for more than 50 years, and not only was a WWII veteran but also retired from the Georgia National Guard, according to his obituary.
"When she called it 'an honest mistake,' that's not an honest mistake. That's a deliberate thing to say, you know, covering up a mess," Dempsey's neighbor, Fred Adoud, said when shown the video and Nuckles' deposition.
Elaine Harris, a retired nursing professor and expert in adult critical care, identified several violations of care in the video, including failure to respond, failure to assess and failure to act.
“In 43 years in nursing, I have never seen such disregard for human life in a health care setting," she said.
In the video, nursing staff repeatedly start and stop CPR on Dempsey.
“That is absolutely inappropriate. You never stop compressions” until a doctor makes a decision not to resuscitate, Harris said.
Operators of the nursing home, owned by Sava Senior Care, declined interview requests but prepared a statement that officials were saddened by the events that occurred more than three years ago.
"The (new) leadership team and the staff have worked very diligently to improve quality care and the quality of life for our residents," officials said in the statement. "The facility recently was deficiency free during our recent annual inspection conducted by the Georgia Department of Health on May 25, 2017.”
The nursing home was made aware of the video in November 2015, but officials did not fire the nurses involved in Dempsey's care on his final day until 10 months later, according to state inspection reports.
Nuckles and the other nurse seen in the video surrendered their licenses in September, about three years after Dempsey's death, according to the Georgia Board of Nursing. Nursing Board President Janice Izlar said she could not confirm when state officials learned about the video, but the board's action came shortly after WXIA-TV reporters sent her and other board staff a link to view the video.
On average the Georgia Nursing Board takes 427 days, more than a year, to investigate a nursing complaint. That's a decrease from about 2,000 days, more than five years, Izlar said.
“There is a lot of the process that we do not have control over," she said. "If we refer to a different division, a different agency, we have absolutely no control over the timeline."
While Northeast Atlanta Health and Rehabilitation recently had a good inspection in May from the Georgia Health Department, problems continued to mount after Dempsey's death.
Medicare records show the nursing home facility was cited at least two dozen times for serious health and safety violations, including “immediate jeopardy” levels, the worst violation. Medicare withdrew one payment and the facility has been fined $813,113 since 2015.
Its Medicare rating is one star, the lowest from the federal agency. Northeast Atlanta Health and Rehabilitation remains open today.