LYNNWOOD — State prosecutors have charged a Lynnwood nursing assistant with manslaughter for an accidental fall at a rehabilitation center that left a frail cancer patient with fatal injuries.
Sunkyoung Oh, 57, is accused of felony negligence leading to a death for an alleged failure to follow a care plan for a patient, identified in court records only as P.J., who was admitted to ManorCare in Lynnwood on Jan. 30, 2018.
Oh’s defense called the criminal charges “baseless,” “baffling” and a “travesty of justice,” and in a statement to The Daily Herald, asserted the state Office of the Attorney General report contained major inaccuracies and omissions.
The Attorney General’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the charges, P.J.’s care plan, as well as a bedside overview of that plan, instructed staff to use a gait belt or a wheelchair to move the patient, when she needed to use the bathroom, for example.
P.J., 73, had just undergone chemotherapy at the University of Washington Medical Center for multiple myeloma. She was taking an anticoagulant medication to prevent blood clots, making her “exceptionally vulnerable in the event of a fall,” according to the charges filed in Snohomish County Superior Court by the Office of the Attorney General. The care plan required one or even two people to help her with daily mobility needs, and noted P.J. had “total dependence” on the care provider to move.
At ManorCare, the goal was for P.J. to regain strength, so she could return home to her family.
On the evening of Feb. 2, 2018, the patient felt too weak and tired to do physical therapy. Her son left the room to give her privacy. Oh helped her to the bathroom without the gait belt, and the woman fell, the charges say.
According to the defense, P.J. was using a walker. A walker isn’t mentioned in the charging documents.
One registered nurse wrote in a statement that Oh told her P.J. hit her head on the grab bar; another nurse reported Oh told her that the patient landed on her bottom; and the son told investigators Oh later said she she didn’t recall if P.J. hit her head. There were no signs of bleeding or bumps on the patient’s head — but “a short time later,” P.J. became sick, with a severe headache, according to the charges. (A civil lawsuit says she got sick about 1½ hours later.)
An EMS report stated the patient had a ground-level fall and hit her head on an object on the way down. That night a CT scan showed a subdural hematoma. However, that does not necessarily mean she suffered a major fall, and a complete lack of outward injuries suggest in all likelihood the bleeding around the brain was rooted in other medical issues, said Patty Eakes, a former King County prosecuting attorney, who is representing Oh through the Seattle law firm Calfo Eakes & Ostrovsky.
The following day, P.J. was transferred from Swedish Edmonds to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Her brain shut down, and she died Feb. 3, 2018. A King County death certificate noted she died of the hematoma and blunt force injuries. According to Eakes, however, the physical evidence does not show blunt force.
In March, a Residential Care Services surveyor asked Oh if she remembered the fall. She did. In her account, P.J.’s son encouraged his mom to get up and to walk to the bathroom, rather than using a bedside commode, so Oh obliged.
“It was when she stood up to sink (sic) when one leg started give out so I was right there and helped her down onto sit on her bottom on floor. She didn’t hit head, she was able to talk after,” she reported, according to the charges.
Investigators showed up at her Lynnwood apartment in May 2019. Oh told them she’d retained an attorney, and wouldn’t speak with investigators.
“That the State of Washington would criminally charge Sun Oh with causing patient P.J.’s death is shocking and should be deeply distressing to all medical professionals, particularly hard-working (certified nursing assistants) and (nurses) who regularly care for fragile patients,” Eakes wrote in a statement to the Herald. “Why the State has decided to charge Ms. Oh in these circumstances is baffling to us and raises serious concerns about the integrity of this office and their exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”
The defense described Oh as someone who has “dedicated her professional life to helping others, … an excellent CNA who has no record of discipline, provides excellent care has been praised by the nurses she works with as a ‘wonderful CNA.’”
It’s rare for the state to file homicide charges against an on-duty health care worker.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Eakes said. “It’s just such an outlier.”
Oh has been certified to work as a nursing assistant in the state since December 2016, according to records from the Washington State Department of Health. Oh’s license was still active this week, with no public history of discipline.
She was charged with second-degree manslaughter Jan. 27. According to her defense, “there will be no evidence that Ms. Oh’s actions caused the death of P.J. and no evidence that her care of P.J. was criminally negligent.”
Oh pleaded not guilty at her arraignment last week. She was released on a promise to show up to her next court hearing set in April.
A separate civil lawsuit is on hold in Snohomish County Superior Court, pending Oh’s criminal case.
The civil case filed by P.J.’s family against ManorCare did not name Oh as a defendant. Instead it accused the facility of only checking P.J.’s vitals and doing neurological checks, and not taking more emergent actions for 1½ hours after she suffered “some kind of fall.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.