Fired CDH nurse Steven Coughlin disputes charge he assaulted patient

Last modified: Tuesday, November 26, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — When Steven Coughlin decided to become a nurse, he said he found a job that combines his love of science and his desire to help people.

Now, the 27-year-old Florence resident is fighting to avoid jail, clear his name and get back into the field he loves after being accused of assaulting a patient and being fired from Cooley Dickinson Hospital earlier this year — a charge he vehemently denies.

Coughlin faces one count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon for allegedly hitting an emergency room patient’s head against a counter Aug. 8.

In a recent interview, Coughlin said the decision to place him under arrest and his eventual firing was based largely on the statements of two hospital employees — a fellow nurse and a security guard, both of whom told police they saw Coughlin forcefully push the head of Michael W. Still of Easthampton into a counter and sink in the room.

Coughlin said the security guard may have misinterpreted what happened while he was trying to restrain Still, who had become agitated, pulled out his IV line, yelled and swore that he wanted to leave the hospital.

“When situations are hectic, I don’t think people really know what to expect,” Coughlin said.

Coughlin said Still fell while he was trying to restrain him and get him seated in a chair after Still had taken two swings at him. While Still did hit his head, Couglin said, it was in the accidental fall, and in no way an assault by him.

Coughlin alleges the nurse, however, gave police false information when she told them she had been in the room the entire time, witnessing the incident.

And, he said, the layout of the room means the incident physically couldn’t have happened the way she described to police.

Coughlin said he doesn’t know why the nurse gave police that information.

Messages left for both witnesses seeking comment weren’t returned. Attempts to reach Still were unsuccessful.

The Northwestern district attorney’s office declined comment on the case, issuing this statement from First Assistant District Attorney, Steven Gagne: “Given the pending nature of his case, we cannot comment on the specifics of the case. It is scheduled for further pretrial conference on Dec. 5, 2013.”

The day in question

Coughlin, who worked as assistant manager at Cooley Dickinson on the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, said the shift Aug. 8 began typically. He said during any given shift in the ER, staff see 30 to 50 patients, and all of its 32 rooms are usually full.

Still was transported to the ER by ambulance about 6:45 p.m. after he’d fallen from his bicycle and scraped his leg.

Still, 34, was also showing signs of low blood sugar and intoxication, according to Coughlin and statements given to police by hospital staff.

When Coughlin arrived for his shift, Still had been triaged and was sleeping in one of the rooms.

Coughlin said when he walked by the room a bit later in the shift, Still was awake and yelling about how he wanted to leave the hospital, while removing the wires to his heart monitor and pulling out his IV line, spraying blood “all over” the room.

Coughlin said he told Still they would work on getting him out of the hospital but it might require some patience.

Coughlin said after that conversation he placed a call to Northampton Police, which he said is standard practice for patients who are treated but refuse to leave or are showing signs of intoxication or are creating a disturbance.

Coughlin said patients creating disturbances or becoming violent are a daily occurrence.

He said he went back in to Still’s room by himself and began bandaging his arm where the IV line had been connected and Still swung at him with the arm that was bleeding. Coughlin told him that if he assaulted or threatened staff he faced being restrained.

Coughlin said Still swung at him a second time, at which point he grabbed his arm and was trying to place him in the chair next to the door when Still fell and struck his head. By this point the security guard was in the room to assist, Coughlin said.

“He went to swing at me again, at that time I grabbed the arm he was trying to swing at me with at that point, the security guard comes in the room and there was a chair next to the door — they always teach you to put your back to a door when there’s a violent situation — when I went to place him in the chair, he fell, then that’s when he struck his head causing the laceration to his eye,” Coughlin said.

A “Code Orange” was called, a signal that assistance with an unruly patient may be required, Coughlin said, and four or five other staff arrived to assist and Still was restrained to his bed.

Coughlin said he ordered a CAT scan for Still’s head and a check of his blood alcohol concentration.

Coughlin said he couldn’t divulge the reading of that test, but estimated it at around “five times” the legal limit to operate a vehicle in Massachusetts. During the episode, Still was allegedly yelling “He hit my head! I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Police report

In an interview with Northampton police the day after the incident, Still said he couldn’t remember exactly what happened but said he must have upset Coughlin. “All I remember is getting restrained and my head getting smashed into the sink in the corner,” Still said in the recorded interview.

Still told police he finished a pint of vodka a couple of hours before he fell off his bike. According to police, he had told officers the night before he had some beers and some shots of whiskey.

He told police in his interview he believed his blood sugar was fine and wasn’t an issue.

A member of hospital staff gave police a written statement saying Still’s blood sugar reading was 50 mg per deciliter. A report from the University of Colorado at Denver defines low blood sugar as anything below 70 mg per deciliter and can lead to behavioral changes including feeling weak or anxious, appearing intoxicated, confusion, drowsiness or loss of consciousness.

The witness also told police Still had made “multiple requests” for pain medication while in the ER, but he had not been seen by a doctor to approve those requests.

Coughlin was interviewed by police at the hospital and based on statements from witnesses and Still, placed under arrest on a charge of assault and battery, escorted out of the hospital and taken to the station for booking.

There was no representation from the hospital present during his interview with police, Coughlin said, which he said felt strange.

“The hospital has a whole legal department for a reason,” he said.

Because he was a manager, he did not have union representation, Coughlin said.

“I told them my side of the story, it was a little odd, because the detective kept asking me, ‘Oh, you must be sick of these drunks that are coming in here, you want to beat up on them,’ I’m like, ‘Why would I ever want to do that?’” he said.

Coughlin said the hospital conducted its own investigation in which he and other witnesses were interviewed.

Coughlin said he was never given a chance to defend himself. He was fired Sept. 10, he said, after being given a chance to resign, which he refused to do.

“I’m not going to admit to something I didn’t do,” he said.

Coughlin said he was disappointed in the decision to fire him before he had his day in court, but wasn’t surprised the hospital dealt with it quickly.

About 20 letters of support praising Coughlin’s character and his professionalism from former colleagues, including some from Cooley Dickinson, former patients and family members of patients Coughlin treated, apparently did nothing to sway the decision to fire him.

“We were grateful that he was our nurse on duty that night,” read part of one letter written by Cynthia and James Kwiecinski, whose daughter Meaghan is an accident victim Coughlin treated.

“I cannot say enough about how Steve’s gentle bedside manner changed the atmosphere of the room and my ability to think positively about the situation. I am so very glad I ended up at Cooley that night,” wrote Meaghan Kwiecinski.

“Steve is one of the most loyal, supportive, caring and compassionate human beings that I have ever met, and my world will always be a safe and happy place as long as he is in it,” wrote Christine Croteau, a classmate and former co-worker of Coughlin’s.

“Everybody I’ve worked with in the past were shocked,” Coughlin said.

He said the incident has prevented him from gaining a new nursing job nearby.

When Coughlin applied for and was selected to be Cooley Dickinson’s emergency room assistant clinical nurse manager in January, 2013, it was not his first nursing job.

He earned his associate’s degree in nursing from Springfield Technical Community College in 2008 and was the president of his nursing class and received a clinical excellency award during his time there, according to his resume.

He received his bachelor’s degree in nursing from Chamberlain College of Nursing in 2010.

Coughlin said while he was in school and after graduation, he worked in a variety of medical settings, including Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, the Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, Calif., and in Ireland for Telehealth, a company that specializes in using electronic information and telecommunication to support long-distance health care.

He was hired by Cooley Dickinson as a per-diem nurse in November 2012 and promoted to assistant clinical nurse manager in January 2013.

In addition to Massachusetts, Coughlin is licensed in California, Florida, Hawaii, Colorado and Ohio, according to his resume.

Coughlin said he’s had good interviews and has solid credentials, but they haven’t translated into new work, which he feels is the result of the allegation.

“I honestly think I’ve been black-flagged in the area,” he said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at


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