The case of the nurse and the ’stolen’ scrubs

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Alexandra Wilson Pecci, for HealthLeaders Media, December 21, 2012

When I was a little girl—maybe no more than four years old—I took a twisty-tie out of my grandmother's kitchen drawer without asking, put it in my pocket, and took it home with me.

Later that afternoon, my mother asked me where I'd gotten it. I told her. She told me that was called stealing. And immediately I was on the phone, apologizing to my grandmother for taking something that didn't belong to me.

The infraction was minor. Some might say my mother overreacted. But the lesson stuck. I can still remember the hot feeling of shame that wrapped around my neck as I admitted the truth. And I never again took anything that wasn't mine.

The case of a little girl taking a twisty-tie out of her grandmother's kitchen drawer might seem as silly and insignificant as that of a nursing student taking a pair of scrubs home with her when she wasn't supposed to.

The scrubs in question were taken by Heather Stickney, a 30-year-old nursing student at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, NH. According to a report in the Concord Monitor, Stickney has been suspended from the school's nursing program after she took home scrubs that she'd worn during a clinical rotation at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, NH.

Her professor and clinical adviser accuse Stickney of stealing the scrubs and lying about it.

Stickney argues that she didn't steal the scrubs and that it was all a misunderstanding. She also argues that the "punishment does not fit the crime," the Monitor reports.

But to Stickney's clinical advisor, Karen Tetreault, the issue is about more than scrubs; it's about honesty and ethics.

"I...questioned that if she chose to lie about scrubs would she also lie about a med error or other patient incident," Tetreault wrote, according to the Monitor.

I obviously don't know whether Stickney—who the Concord Monitor reports had the scrubs stuffed in her jacket and took them after Tetreault told her not to—actually intended to steal the scrubs or whether she lied about it.

But this isn't really about a pair of $20 scrubs. It's about lying and stealing and what kind of a person a nurse is expected to be.

As I wrote last week, the American public trusts nurses more than any other profession in the country.  According to the annual Gallup poll, 85% of Americans rated nurses' honesty and ethical standards as "very high" or "high," the highest rating for RNs since nurses were first included in the poll in 1999.

In last week's column, I asked why nurses are so trusted and came up with a number of explanations, from their compassion to their dedication to their medical expertise. But perhaps it's also because ethical infractions, even small ones, are not tolerated within the nursing community. The bar is unusually high for nurses because the stakes are so high in nursing.

Therefore, it's perfectly reasonable to wonder whether someone who steals something small one day might eventually steal something big, like medicine or money, another day. It's reasonable to question whether a person who lies about something small might eventually lie about something big, like a medical error.

"My clinical skills are exceptional. I have never once made an error," Stickney told the Concord Monitor.

But in the world of nursing, where trust is paramount, honesty matters just as much as clinical skills.

Stickney is appealing her suspension.