Number of complaints against South Peninsula Hospital dept. manager grows

South Peninsula Hospital. (Photo courtesy of South Peninsula Hospital)

Several women have brought forth allegations against a South Peninsula Hospital department manager in Homer, describing an environment of bullying and sexual harassment.

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The allegations against Douglas Westphal, the former director of the hospital’s rehab department, also include one instance of alleged sexual assault. Complaints have also been filed with the state Division of Professional Licensing, the local union and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Westphal returned to work in a non-managerial role in January following an internal investigation, but several of the women say they want Westphal fired.

One woman who made a complaint against Westphal came forward to KBBI in February, alerting the station about six other complaints. KBBI later became aware of an additional complaint made by department staff.

The complaints date back to the fall of 2016, most of which were made to the hospital’s HR department between August of 2017 and the end of the year. Six of the eight women and department staff spoke with KBBI on the record.

Allegations range from unsolicited shoulder rubs to threatening to turn on decommissioned security cameras in areas where female staff change clothes. Others say Westphal repeatedly disclosed patients’ personal information to staff and made negative comments about female staff’s medical conditions, pregnancies and financial situations.

South Peninsula Hospital spokesperson Derotha Ferraro confirmed that there were a number of complaints.

“There was an investigation based on employee concerns,” Ferraro said. “That investigation happened, and that investigation ended.”

Westphal acknowledged the investigation in an email to KBBI in April.

“I appreciate the severity of the allegations that are currently being investigated thoroughly by South Peninsula Hospital,” Westphal wrote. “I have been fully cooperative with the investigation and will continue to do so.”

Hospital CEO Joseph Woodin and Ferraro confirmed that Westphal was put on administrative leave before he was demoted to his current position as a physical therapist in January.

But the women say the hospital’s response was inadequate. The most serious allegation comes from Lora Wilke, a former registered nurse at the hospital who left in 2011. Wilke said she was seeing Westphal as a patient in 2009 following knee surgery. She said Westphal encouraged her to take two “Vicodin” pills prior to her session. Wilke said Westphal then gave her a large pair of shorts before escorting her to a private treatment area.

“I lay down on a gurney, and he covered me with a blanket,” Wilke said. “The curtains were closed, and he proceeded to come up the leg of my shorts reaching toward my underwear. I would say that by the time I pushed his hand away, he had pretty much his whole hand in my shorts, and his fingers were about a centimeter away from my underwear.”

Wilke said she continued her treatment with Westphal and that all subsequent treatments were performed in an open area.

Wilke explains that it was the #MeToo movement that pushed her to report the alleged incident to Homer Police back in October.

“It was like a punch in the gut because I realized that by me not saying anything to anybody and letting him get away with this, that I had left the door open for other women to be abused and harassed by Douglas Westphal,” Wilke said. “I went to the police, and all along I have known that I have no legal recourse.”

Police declined to charge Westphal. Investigating officer Larry Baxter said the alleged incident did not rise to the level of sexual assault and that the statute of limitations had expired for any potential lower level crimes.

Wilke followed up with the hospital’s HR department in November, the third complaint made to HR staff since 2016. Later that month, the hospital responded to Wilke with a certified letter explaining that the hospital spoke with “appropriate staff” and that SPH reviewed its training material on sexual harassment and physical therapy treatment.

There was no mention of action taken against Westphal. Wilke questioned SPH’s response in an email, arguing she had been a victim of a crime.

“Is he still practicing. Is he still doing this?” she asked. “You can do whatever you want. You can train a man. You can put him through seminars. That doesn’t fix what he’s done and what he will continue to do.”

The hospital responded that it had “nothing further to add.”

“I felt ignored, not taken seriously, re-traumatized,” Wilke said. “I felt lost, scared. I didn’t know where else I’d be able to turn.”

Wilke said both during therapy and at work that Westphal also repeatedly asked if he could hypnotize her, allegedly saying, “look into the violet flame.” According to Westphal’s bio on the hospital’s website, he became a master clinical hypnotist in 2011.

According to documents provided by Wilke, she filed a complaint with the state Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing against Westphal’s physical and occupational therapist license. Wilke filed the complaint after Westphal returned to work in January.

The division’s Chief Investigator, Greg Francois, confirmed that Wilke filed the complaint and said the division has an “inquiry” into the matter, which precedes an official investigation that could come with consequences such as Westphal losing his license.

Homer News published an article about the allegations on May 16, saying that Francois confirmed there was an “active investigation involving Westphal’s license.” KBBI later determined from Francois’ statement and the division policies he provided that the complaint had not moved onto the investigative phase.

During the “inquiry” process, the division typically obtains records, documentation and evidence related to the complaint and performs preliminary interviews before determining whether to move forward with an “official investigation.”

KBBI also confirmed that two additional complaints against Westphal were filed with the division. According to the division’s website, no prior actions have been taken against Westphal’s license.

There are also three active grievances with the local union, General Teamsters 959. Union President Barbara Huff Tuckness said none have been resolved.

“We have one at the arbitration level with attempts to try to reach some sort of resolution and we have two other cases that will be going towards that arbitration level, assuming we don’t get those resolved,” Tuckness said.

Sarah Bollwitt, who currently works as an occupational therapist for the hospital, is one of the women who filed a union grievance. Bollwitt said she kept tabs on her interactions with Westphal dating back to her second day of work in April of 2015. She said Westphal made a comment about her being more attractive “than her Facebook photo would suggest,” and she said his comments became increasingly inappropriate during the three years she worked under him.

“I told him I had a miscarriage and I couldn’t work at the health fair, and he told me, ‘What were you thinking having sex without a condom?’” Bollwitt recalled. “That’s when I started keeping track because I know that you’re not supposed to talk to your employees like that. No one should be made to feel disrespected on top of already being devastated.”

Bollwitt says that alleged incident happened in late 2015. She says she kept a running list of similar instances over the next two years before she handed the list over to Chief Nursing Officer Von Kilpatrick and Risk Management Nurse Dawn Johnson in December.

Bollwitt’s complaint was forwarded onto the HR department. She filed her grievance with the union in January and transferred to another department.

Several other women have come forward to the HR department, including former traveling physical therapist Lora Harroff. Harroff started working at the hospital in March of 2017. She said her first interaction with Westphal was in the HR office on her first day of work.

“I got my badge, and I put it on my collar and this man, who was Douglas, came into the HR department,” Harroff explained. “He walked up to me and brushed my hair off of my shoulder.”

Harroff says Westphal then grabbed her badge off of her collar.

“I was kind of very confused. I look up at him and he said, ‘Oh, you’re Lora. You must be Lora. I’m Douglas,” Harroff said.

Harroff said Westphal regularly made inappropriate remarks about her body, including an instance when Westphal allegedly made her to do a squat in front of other staff after making a comment about her “glutes.”

Harroff formally complained to HR in August after she said she confronted him earlier that summer. She said HR facilitated a meeting with Westphal, but she said he was unapologetic.

“I mean at that point I felt like kind of powerless because there’s nothing else I could do except for encouraging other people come forward,” Harroff said.

Harroff finished her short stint as a traveling therapist at the hospital in September.

Other women said they suffered a constant barrage of negative comments from Westphal. Amber Rogers started as a traveling physical therapist in 2013 and later became a permanent employee. She said Westphal made negative comments about her getting sick and other health conditions she had. Rodgers said he also belittled her about her work performance and religion.

“The more he belittled me and said these comments to me, the more I was becoming depressed, and then my health started getting worse because I honestly was fearful to come to work,” Rogers said. “I hated going to work because I did not want to see him.”

Susan Cates-Blackmon said she found another job in the Pacific Northwest as a speech therapist largely because of her negative experience working with Westphal.

Cates-Blackmon filed a formal grievance with the union when she secured her next job three months after she gave her notice. Her husband, David Blackmon, who worked as a rehabilitation aid in the department, said he also filed a grievance with the union.

Multiple women who spoke with KBBI also said they quit because of Westphal.

Although, the hospital’s internal investigation is over, hospital spokesperson Ferraro said SPH is still working with the Division of Professional Licensing. Ferraro said the hospital is handling another complaint against Westphal with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces civil rights laws involving workplace discrimination.

Both Ferraro and hospital CEO Woodin say they take the women’s complaints seriously, but Woodin, who started his position in March, said the hospital was surprised by the allegations.

“He did have a 25-year track record of working at the hospital with no prior complaints,” Woodin said. “I can tell you that with great confidence that there wasn’t concerns expressed 10 years ago.”

Like Wilke, most of the women say the hospital’s communication with them about the investigation into Westphal was poor, and they say beyond Westphal’s demotion, they were left guessing about how their complaints were handled.

Woodin said the hospital can’t disclose every aspect of its investigation to employees and the public.

“I think there’s definitely some lessons learned with regards to the feedback and the timeliness and responding to some of these things,” Woodin said.

Ferraro added that the hospital has no concerns about Westphal’s professional practice and that he will continue treating patients.

“If the hospital had concerns, he would not be practicing there,” Ferraro said.

Others have spoken in support of Westphal, including five women who submitted letters to the hospital’s board of directors in December, according to meeting minutes. KBBI requested those letters, but the request was denied.

Sarah Bollwitt acknowledges others have stated they had no problems with Westphal.

“The fact that although plenty of people have had only positive interactions with this person, it doesn’t negate his inappropriate behavior with me and with others,” Bollwitt said.

Bollwitt and others say they came forward to make sure that their experiences aren’t repeated.

Despite the hospital demoting Westphal, several of the women still say he should be removed completely.

It’s unclear when other inquiries into allegations against Westphal will conclude and what possible actions could be taken against him.

This story contained contributions from Renee Gross with KBBI in Homer.