By the late winter of 2014, James Dempsey had served in a world war, raised children, buried a wife and seen the best of his health behind him. As he prepared for a stay at a nursing home on the outskirts of Atlanta, the 89-year-old began to feel nervous.
So his family hid a camera in his room at Northeast Atlanta Health and Rehabilitation, Dempsey’s son later told WSB-TV. His father knew about it, he said, but the nurses didn’t.
James Dempsey died in that room Feb. 27, 2014, in front of the secret camera. What his family saw on the video made them sue the facility.
Portions of the hidden video were aired this week by another news station, NBC 11 Alive. The clips appear to show Dempsey gasping for air, begging for help and collapsing that morning while nurses barely attempt to revive him and at one point laugh over his bed.
At 4:34 a.m. on the last day of his life, Dempsey threw one skinny leg over the edge of his hospital bed. He pressed a button to call a nurse and croaked three times to an empty room: “Help me, help me, help me.”
A few seconds passed. “Help me. Help me. Help.”
The only immediate answer was the soft murmur of a TV.
As seen in NBC’s video, a worker entered the room eight minutes after that call. The worker adjusted Dempsey’s bed and inspected some tubes around his neck, then turned off his call light and left him alone.
In a deposition more than a year later, which the NBC station also aired, the video was shown to Wanda Nuckles, the nursing supervisor on duty that night.
“Would you agree it appears as though he’s gasping for air?” the questioner asked Nuckles.
“It looks like it,” she said quietly as she watched.
“Is that an emergency situation, ma’am?”
“How’s it make you feel to watch this ma'am?”
Staff returned to the room nearly an hour later and found Dempsey unconscious, the NBC station reported. Nearly another full hour passed before anyone called 911, according to the station. At that point, Nuckles herself was called up to the room.
Earlier in her deposition, Nuckles testified that she ran across the nursing home’s courtyard to Dempsey’s room, where she said she and a second nurse took turns performing constant CPR. “Unless a doctor says stop, you have to continue,” Nuckles told the questioner. “That’s always been the rule.”
But the questioner played a clip from the video that told a different story. In the video, Nuckles walked into the room shortly before 6:30 a.m., where another nurse stood by Dempsey’s bed. Someone flipped the dying man’s sheet up, and someone lowered his bed. But neither Nuckles nor the nurse appeared to touch Dempsey’s chest.
“Contrary to the way you testified previously, there’s no one doing CPR, is there?” the questioner asked Nuckles after playing the clip.
“No,” Nuckles said.
A few minutes later, a third worker joined Nuckles and the second nurse. Dempsey was still not moving, and still no one was attempting CPR.
The NBC station reported that the nurses were having trouble getting Dempsey’s oxygen machine to work by 6:30 a.m. — at which point in the video Nuckles pressed both hands onto Dempsey’s mattress and someone laughed.
“Ma’am, is there something funny that was happening?” the questioner asked Nuckles in the deposition.
“I have no clue, sir,” she said. “I can’t even remember all that.”
A minute later, Nuckles finally attempted CPR on Dempsey. She pumped his chest half a dozen times in the video, then stopped.
Dempsey’s family sued the facility but then settled and wouldn’t comment to NBC about the video, which the station obtained after its own legal fight with Northeast Atlanta Health and Rehabilitation. The nursing home tried to have the video sealed by a court, the station reported, and only released it on a judge’s order.
A spokesman for Sava Senior Care, which owns the facility, told the station it was “saddened by the events, which occurred more than three years ago” and had since worked to improve its service. A worker who answered at the facility said staff members weren’t allowed to talk about the events.
Nuckles and the other nurse in the video lost their licenses after the Georgia Board of Nursing learned of the video last year, according to NBC. Nuckles could not be reached by The Washington Post.