ORLANDO — Lawrence DeStefano is reaching out to everyone he can to understand something crucial: at any time, completely without warning, they could become the victim of someone so consumed with rage that they’re ready to walk into an office building and kill everyone in sight.
“Every week there are 20,000 people killed in the workplace,” DeStefano said, citing statistics from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. People may not fully comprehend just how widespread this problem is, he said, in part because these attacks don’t always get as much media attention as the public might expect.
“It hits the local news, but very rarely does it hit the national news,” he said. “Through my research, I was so struck by these numbers — I was blown away.”
What people need to understand, DeStefano added, is that a lot of these attacks occur at health care facilities or hospitals, as either patients or the family members of someone being treated there explode in rage when they think the care has not only been substandard, but actually threatened the life of the patient. That prompts some people to take out their anger, their feelings of injustice and hopelessness, on the entire institution – workers and visitors alike. Once these tragedies have occurred, he said, it’s the job of the hospital’s risk management department to keep as many of the grim details out of the news as possible, to avoid negative publicity that scares people away.
“That’s the reason you don’t hear about these murders,” he said.
DeStefano is now trying to heighten awareness of this issue, and he even has a web site devoted to it. But he’s not approaching this social problem as a member of law enforcement, or someone who works in the field of criminal justice.
DeStefano comes at it from personal experience – painful and traumatic personal experience. He wasn’t an employee at a local hospital that got attacked, or a patient there. He was the one who wanted to storm into one with a gun and start shooting.
“I had to do it,” he said. “People were going to die. When this happened to me, I got hooked on the idea that I was going to kill people. I wanted to try to show people I’ve got 30 rounds of ammunition, I’ve got 15 weapons, and I was going to kill people. People were going to die and I didn’t care if it was you.”
Friends eventually calmed him down, and he turned to the legal system instead – and won. But it was a long, agonizing battle for DeStefano, one he admits came dangerously close to pushing him over the edge.
“I’m a very level person,” he said. “But you can’t go around accusing children of raping their dying parents. You don’t say stuff like that. It’s very, very dangerous. There is a catharsis going on, and you’ve got to understand the seriousness of this.”
Today, DeStefano’s web site, http://healthcareretaliation.com/, chronicles his long battle with Florida Hospital, that started when his mother was admitted there, at age 73, for a urinary tract infection. The fight ended in a courtroom, not a bloody, bullet-riddled emergency room, when in October 2005, an Orange County jury awarded DeStefano $1 million to compensate him for his loss or reputation, and another $1 million in punitive damages. The jury determined the hospital had falsely accused him of sexually abusing his mother after he had complained about the care she was being given.
He was the primary caregiver of his mother, Carolina DeStefano, who was unable to communicate because she was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She was admitted to Florida Hospital on Sept. 15, 1999, and later transferred to the hospital’s nearby rehabilitative facility, Sunbelt Healthcare & Sub-Acute Center. When DeStefano complained that the wound dressing on her foot was missing, leaving an open sore heel ulcer exposed, it was the start, he said, of a lengthy nightmare. The complaint prompted the hospital, he said, to circle the wagons.
“It’s called Patient Relations,” he said. “This happens all the time. This is the system. This is a fact. It’s shown through the evidence I’ve collected. People from patient relations are actually risk managers. When you bring someone into the hospital, if you’re complaining about something that is egregious that the hospital has done, they will kick you out. A hospital will call the police and say ‘We want this advocate out.’ They tear out all the evidence, then they lodge some outrageous allegation that diverts attention from the complaint, and then the onus is on you.
“They’ve done this before,” he said. “Because they’re doing this, and because this is systemic, this is what’s causing people to go nuts. These risk managers, their headquarters is always in a separate building down the street. If you drive by there, you’ll see there is a guard in front of the building. They know about workplace violence, and they know what they’re doing is causing people to be going postal. I want to tell the people what’s going on. I want to show the statistics. I want to show what’s going to play out when you bring your father to the emergency room, and you’re innocent, and the executives know this and they don’t care.”
Because of his complaints about the wound dressing, DeStefano said the hospital conspired to accuse him of sexually abusing his own mother. He was accused, in a sworn statement to the Orlando Police Department Sex Crimes Unit, of being witnessed kissing his mother on the lips, and inserting his finger into her rectum until she began bleeding.
“What I later found out was they had drawn blood from my mother and squirted it on her rectum, and said I had molested her,” he said. “My mother was put under protective custody. Under Florida stature, if you’re investigated by the Department of Children and Family Services, you’re an alleged sexual perpetrator. I fell under the title of alleged sexual perpetrator.”
The investigation by the sex crimes unit, though, was completed within three days, and DeStefano never got arrested.
“They knew it was a lie,” he said. But when he demanded that hospital officials get arrested for filing a false claim, that arrest never happened, either.
“You can’t make a false claim,” he said. “That’s a crime.”
His lawyer advised him to file a lawsuit and lay low, but DeStefano was outraged at the allegations lodged against him, and the fact that his accusers never got arrested, that he went into action.
“He wanted me to sit down at my house and just be quiet. I ignored his advice,” he said. “I went to Home Depot and got a sign, and from that point forward, for 10 hours a day, I stood out there for a year and a half.”
He won his case, he said, after a nurse came forward and testified that the allegations against DeStefano had been false.
“The nurse came forward in a deposition and said this was a setup,” he said.
But before the jury reached its verdict, DeStefano admits, he very nearly lost control of his emotions. The fact that no one from the hospital was being held accountable, he said, almost pushed him over the edge.
“That’s when I got my guns,” he said. “I wanted to kill people. But there was an intervention with friends. I came very close. People were going to die …. very close. I can show you the 2000 scope I bought.”
Today, DeStefano is using his web site to raise awareness of this problem. People who don’t think of themselves as being the least bit violent can lose control when their loved ones get substandard or even appallingly bad medical care, and there’s no way to hold anyone accountable for it. Their frustration turns to rage, and that rage turns deadly violent.
“It’s happening every week In America,” DeStefano said. “If I had done a spree killing and I had killed people, and I gave my whole story, people would understand.
“After I won my lawsuit, I put everything on my web site,” he said. “I put everything out there. I wanted to put up the allegations. The story I see this as, is there are many people that feel disenfranchised. They don’t feel like they have any power. They’re just individuals. People who have power and pull and a perceived status in the community, they can make any allegations they want. What I want to convey to people is this is what these people do.”
And he wants the community, even the nation, to understand that if this situation doesn’t change, more tragedies are waiting to happen … without warning, in a split second, if someone feels there’s nothing else they can do to bring down those select people allowed to remain above the law.
“I want people to fight,” he said.
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