Nurse says she couldn't avoid falling in love with inmate patient

By Contributor

The nurse who has name suppression, was working as a mental health clinician at a South Island prison / NZME

By Ellen Thompson, Open Justice Multimedia Journalist, Tāmaki Makaurau

A nurse who had a relationship with her patient when he was a prison inmate says she couldn't avoid falling in love with him.

"I didn't expect this and I didn't go out of my way to make it happen," the nurse has told a Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal.

The woman, who has name suppression, was working as a mental health clinician at a South Island prison when she first met the man, who is now her partner.

Today, the practitioner, who accepted the relationship with her former patient was a breach of professional boundaries, told the tribunal their relationship only developed after she had finished seeing him as a patient.

"My relationship with him while working at the prison was strictly professional. Our personal relationship started four months after the last time I provided healthcare to him."

The prisoner had sought healthcare from behind bars and had his first appointment with the mental health nurse in December 2018.

Over a period of six months, the inmate had nine sessions with the nurse, with each appointment ranging from 10 to 60 minutes. The last appointment was in May 2019.

But after the sessions stopped, the inmate decided to pursue his former medical practitioner and had a friend pass on a message for him.

"He had his friend's partner send me a Facebook message, asking me to write to him."

"I didn't know the reason for this. I thought it might be to provide ongoing support for him," the nurse said.

A month later she resigned from her job at the prison to undertake a new role elsewhere.

That same month the nurse sent the inmate a letter.

Over the next month, the pair sent letters to one another and the relationship turned personal.

However, the nurse claimed the relationship only turned romantic when they began calling each other in October 2019.

In a recorded phone conversation shared with the tribunal, the nurse was caught expressing her attraction toward the inmate.

"I still remember seeing you in shorts, those thighs ... it's honestly not fair."

Professional Conduct Committee [PCC] lawyer Matthew McClelland, QC, asked the woman whether she was initially attracted to her former patient.

"He obviously left an impression on you."

"I didn't think he was bad looking when I first saw him," the nurse replied.

McClelland continued, speaking about the professional boundaries and power imbalance between a practitioner and a patient.

"It remains the responsibility of a registered nurse, not the patient. The patient was vulnerable and there was a huge power imbalance."

The PCC sought a suspension of 12 months for the nurse.

"This raises serious concerns regarding her ethics within the industry. She was in a privileged position and took advantage of him," McClelland said.

The woman, who was supported by the man, now her partner, peers and bosses within the workplace, expressed her apologies to the tribunal.

Lawyer Jonathan Coates described the woman as being a remarkable nurse who made a mistake.

"The nursing community should be proud of a nurse who is so open and sincere about her mistakes," Coates told the tribunal.

"None of that takes away from her mistake. She is exactly the type of nurse you should be proud to have. She owns up to the mistakes and demonstrates such compassion.

"People do fall in love in really special and unique ways. It involves a former patient, not a current one and the relationship was initiated by the inmate."

Coates noted that the patient should be at the heart of the tribunal's decision and said he was still in a relationship with the nurse.

He also mentioned that the PCC and Nursing Council never tried to reach out to the patient despite his attempts to reach them.

"It is rare to have the patient being so supportive. She shouldn't be suspended and isn't a risk for the public.

"Why would you take a confident and widely known nurse out of the already strained mental health services?"

The tribunal is set to release its decision tomorrow.