The trial of a former longtime nurse accused of assaulting a patient at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center began Wednesday, against the backdrop of two recent homicides and internal reviews of the state's maximum-security psychiatric hospital.
Rita Ward, 56, is charged with injuring Lori Shilling, a 25-year-old woman who, because of mental health problems, was found not criminally responsible for her part in a 2008 robbery in Prince George's County. Ward maintained her innocence on the witness stand.
The trial in Howard County opens a window on Perkins, but conflicting testimony was presented about the June 2010 incident at the Jessup hospital.
Although the alleged assault was captured on a hospital security cameras, the distant vantage point made it difficult to determine what was happening. A now-retired nurse, Gladys Kelly, who was sentenced to a year's probation on an assault charge from the incident, told jurors that Shilling's ward was understaffed that night because some employees were involved in a training program.
"I was pretty agitated because I couldn't fall asleep," Shilling said as she testified about the events that took place about 1 a.m. She said she is bipolar and has other disorders, which sometimes make her uncontrollably agitated and have led her to curse at police as well as at hospital staff.
She testified that all she wanted was prescription medicine to help her get to sleep or some time in the quiet room away from her snoring roommate. But nurses refused, and then two of them dragged her down a hallway to her room, stomped on her foot and pulled her hair, she said.
Ward's account was different. She testified that Shilling had a reputation for cursing at nurses and being manipulative. That night at the nurses' station, Shilling grew upset after she was told the staff had no juice, which she had requested, and didn't want to go into the quiet room to unwind. Eventually, she was calmed, but she wanted nurses to bring her back to her room in a playful way, Ward said.
"I wouldn't do anything to a patient," she said.
A doctor testified that after the incident, she saw redness behind Shilling's ear and a bruise on her foot. Ward said that after Kelly's badge and pen popped off her uniform while they were bringing Shilling to her room, Kelly retrieved the pen from behind Shilling's ear.
There were 267 assaults by Perkins patients on other patients or staff in the 2011 fiscal year, up from 228 in 2010 and 225 in 2009, though few resulted in hospitalization, according to state data. During the same three-year period, five staff members were fired for using excessive force on patients. Three of those were charged in this incident.
Kelly, who testified Wednesday, was given probation before judgment on an assault charge, which means she can have it expunged after a year. Charges were dropped against another worker.
Dr. David S. Helsel, who began work Monday as Perkins' new CEO, said state officials and consultants are reviewing every system at the hospital to determine what might have contributed to the two recent patient-on-patient slayings. That includes a review of security, staffing levels and treatment of patients.
"We still consider it to be an emergency situation," Helsel said Wednesday by phone from his new office at Perkins. "We need to leave no stone unturned until we're convinced of what needs to be corrected."
He said staff members were helping with the investigation while continuing to do their jobs. Already, one more staffer has been added to each shift by using overtime. Helsel has requested funds to permanently increase staffing. He added, "Employees work very hard under very difficult conditions and deserve a lot respect for what they do."
Ward's trial is scheduled to resume Thursday morning.
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.