When authorities showed up to interview Richard Pieri, a Pennsylvania nurse, they asked him if he knew why they were there.
“I guess it has something to do with me being drunk on call,” he responded, according to a probable-cause affidavit.
But Pieri was not only intoxicated while on call, authorities allege. They think he also was under the influence of alcohol when he participated in an emergency appendectomy at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center.
He now faces charges of recklessly endangering another person, driving under the influence and public drunkenness, according to court documents.
Security footage shows Pieri stumbling through the hospital parking lot late Feb. 4, on his way into surgery, according to the court documents. He walked with an “unsteady” gait and almost fell, the probable-cause affidavit states.
His behavior, a Department of Veterans Affairs police detective wrote, was “consistent with someone who is under the influence of a controlled substance or alcoholic beverages.”
Another nurse working that night told an investigator that Pieri was “definitely not himself,” according to the affidavit. He had trouble logging on to his computer, she said, and grew upset.
“Rick, are you drunk or something?” the woman said she asked Pieri.
A message left for Pieri was not returned.
A physician assistant also told an investigator that he smelled an alcohol in the operating room. He “concluded that the odor was likely emitted from one of the employees inside the room,” the documents state.
Pieri told investigators that he visited Mohegan Sun casino at Pocono Downs on Feb. 4 and drank four or five beers while playing slots. He said he went home but was paged about the emergency surgery about 11:30 that night.
“Pieri admitted that he knew he was not supposed to be a part of a surgery while he was intoxicated,” the affidavit says. But, the document states, he “claimed he had forgotten he was on call and did not want to have someone else come in.”
According to the affidavit, Pieri “was responsible for preparing the patient, retrieving the patient, preparing the materials inside the room, documenting the surgery, and monitoring the vitals of the patient throughout recovery.”
The operating room, the document notes, “is filled with complicated equipment that Pieri needs to operate and has several loose wires and cords that can be tripped on or disconnected by somebody with an inability to properly ambulate themselves.”
Medical staff at the hospital told investigators from the Department of Veterans Affairs Police Service that “taking part in a surgery with impaired cognitive ability can create a substantial risk to the safety of the patient.”
The affidavit does not name the patient, but it notes that this person was later readmitted to the hospital with stomach pains.
“To the best of my knowledge there’s been no harm as a result of the incident,” William Klaips, executive assistant to the VA Medical Center’s director, told The Washington Post.
The affidavit, however, notes that “Pieri’s actions were knowingly reckless and could have caused serious injury or death to the patient.”
On Thursday, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sent letters to VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald and the medical center in Wilkes-Barre, requesting information on the incident.
In a statement sent to The Post on Friday morning, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it “takes seriously any accusations that an employee’s actions might have placed a Veteran at risk.”
Pieri, the VA statement said, “has been removed from patient care responsibilities at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center where this alleged incident took place. If necessary, additional actions will be proposed as the investigation is completed.”
“Patient safety is paramount to all of us at VA and upon learning of the incident, we immediately confirmed patient care was not jeopardized,” the statement added. “We are currently reinforcing training to ensure all employees are empowered to raise operational concerns and to prevent a future incident from occurring.”
This story, originally published on Feb. 25, has been updated.