INVERNESS, Fla. -- At dusk, men and women gather at the shuffleboard courts in the town square for an evening of sport. With a whoosh and a clack, the play begins as it has every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a quarter of a century.
In this city near St. Petersburg, named by a homesick Scot and nestled on a chain of lakes called Tsala Apopka, Santa Claus still rides down Main Street in the Christmas parade. This is the "real" Florida, people say, where boiled green peanuts are an acquired taste, men go frogging at night and a social life begins in church.
"There's orneriness here. But not like other places," says Bob Huffman, the shuffleboard club's 73-year-old vice president. "It's friendly place . . . a caring community."
So when Inverness police recently charged a male nurse at the local hospital with sexually assaulting five sedated female patients in separate incidents over 10 months, this town of 6,500 gasped.
"It sent shock waves through town," said Becky Fleming, the executive director of the Citrus County Abuse Shelter Association.
"We've put our trust in a nurse -- male or female -- to be a caretaker. For us to suddenly realize they could be a threat to us, that's a frightening thought. This community prides itself on being the staunch, upright American community everyone wants be a part of," she added.
But today law enforcement officers are investigating dozens of calls from women who worry that they, too, may have been assaulted. They and the alleged victims must decide whether to undergo AIDS testing (as the accused has agreed to do).
The town's acclaimed hospital is fighting three lawsuits -- two seeking $1 million in damages -- and public doubts that it didn't act promptly when hospital officials first suspected nurse Bruce A. Young.
And the hospital staff, the 900 employees who help deliver the town's babies, remove tonsils and gallbladders, fix broken bones and bad hearts? They feel they may have been betrayed by a colleague they trusted. They worry that their good work over nearly four decades will be undermined.
"People are devastated. They are taking this very, very personally," said Dr. John Rowda, an ophthalmologist and president-elect of the Citrus County Medical Society. "He wasn't considered an average nurse. He was considered one of the best."
The accused nurse -- a husband and a father who has worked at the hospital since 1990 -- sits in the county jail unable to post his $100,000 bond. He has pleaded not guilty. Last week, the court appointed a new lawyer for the 45-year-old Pennsylvania native because his public defender withdrew -- a co-worker in her office suspects she, too, may have been a patient of his.
Inverness Police Officer Lisa Wall takes the calls from the women, the former patients of Citrus Memorial Hospital. In the three weeks since Mr. Young's arrest, she has spoken with 72 women. The pace has slowed, but still the phone rings.
Some give their names. Some won't. All are desperate to know if Mr. Young was working in the recovery room during their hospital stay. Officer Wall checks the paperwork and responds. There are sighs of relief. But stunned silences, too. And then more questions: What should I do? Has he been tested for AIDS? Should I get tested? What about my family?
Officer Wall advises the former patients to retrieve their hospital records. She offers to review them. She tells where they can be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
If they need to talk, she listens.
"I try not to take it home with me," Officer Wall says of the emotional landscape she is treading. "But sometimes I do . . . just the fact of not knowing if something did occur. If they can't remember, I can't remember it for them."
William G. Vitt, chief of the 13-member Inverness force, has taken calls at home, from women he knows. "When you talk to someone who's been a victim of this kind of crime, you want to cry with them. You want to console them," he said.
Early on, Chief Vitt recognized that he would need help. In Inverness, traffic calls, security checks, and an occasional burglary mark a routine weekend. So three Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents have joined the case.
Many of the women who have called the police "just don't know" whether they were assaulted. They were sedated while recovering from surgery.
Described by a supervisor as a "valued employee," Mr. Young was one of three recovery room staffers on the evening shift.
In the five cases in which he is charged, Mr. Young administered pain medication to the patients, said Robert W. Hodges, the prosecutor. But the doses given were at the high end of the acceptable range, Mr. Hodges said. And they allegedly "prolonged [the patients'] period of unconsciousness," the prosecutor said.
Mr. Young was arrested Oct. 3, after a nurse walked into the
recovery room and allegedly saw him atop a teen-age patient. The nurse later told investigators that he was attracted to the girl "because she is pretty and was helpless," police reports said.
The four other cases in which Mr. Young is charged occurred in December, July and August. The five alleged victims range in age from 15 to 34.
In the alleged assault on the teen-ager, three hours went by before police were called. Hospital personnel were notifying supervisors, consulting with the family and caring for the patient, hospital records show.
"Certainly everyone has asked, 'Why three hours?' " said Chief Vitt. "The importance of that three hours is valuable physical evidence can be destroyed and . . . was destroyed --the sheets she was lying on were taken off and washed."
But Chief Vitt also says that most members of his family have been cared for at the hospital: "We've just had great success with this hospital. We have felt secure."
Citrus Memorial Hospital opened in 1957 with the help of a local doctor, bank president, Kiwanis Club members and other community leaders. The one-story red brick building had 27 beds. The hospital today, with 171 beds and a 3-story addition, has recently completed a $6 million renovation.
Inside the hospital, thank-you notes from patients are tacked to a bulletin board. Children accompany their parents to work, eat breakfast in the cafeteria and then walk to the elementary school across the street.
Early this year, Citrus Memorial made headlines when a Baltimore health care information company and a New York consulting firm named it one of the top 100 hospitals in the country.
But in the past three weeks, Citrus Memorial has come under a far different kind of scrutiny. Some community residents want to know why a male nurse was attending a female patient. Others say they will now ask for a female nurse, a request the hospital has granted and will grant, said spokeswoman Megan Carella.
Still others question the hospital's ability to screen employees properly. Mr. Young, a former teacher, received his nursing license in 1990 even though his teaching certificate had been revoked because he had consensual sex with a student who was not a minor, the Citrus County Chronicle reported.
"For this thing to happen as it did just knocked us for a loop," said Inverness Mayor Orien J. Humphries, who moved here 26 years ago when the town had only three doctors.
"I hope the people of Inverness and Citrus County don't take this one incident and think the hospital has just gone bad. I've seen them do so much good," the mayor said.
At Mildred's Beauty Salon, proprietor Mildred Spann and hairdresser Judy Stratton echoed the sentiments of many residents when they said: You can't blame everybody for what one person may have done.
"If I had to go to the hospital tomorrow, I'd be right there," said Mrs. Stratton.