GOSHEN — Joyce Gingerich, an oncology nurse at IU Health Goshen Hospital, had two options — get a flu shot or lose her job.
It was a tough choice, but Gingerich and seven others at the hospital stood their ground and refused to receive the vaccination. Their last day of work was Tuesday.
“I knew that I could not compromise my personal belief system for a job,” explained Gingerich, who had worked at the hospital on and off since 1987. “It was really sad to leave that job. In all my years of nursing, it was my favorite.”
In early September, IU Health Goshen Hospital informed its staff that flu shots would no longer be optional. Beginning this year, all of the hospital’s staff, affiliated physicians, volunteers and vendors are required to receive a flu vaccination or apply for an exemption. The hospital’s requirements came as a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, the American Medical Association and other major regulatory health agencies, according to hospital spokeswoman Melanie McDonald.
“As a hospital and health system, our top priority is and should be patient safety, and we know that hospitalized people with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk for illness and death from the flu,” McDonald said. “The flu has the highest death rate of any vaccine preventable disease, and it would be irresponsible from our perspective for health care providers to ignore that.”
Other hospitals, including Elkhart General Hospital and South Bend Memorial, have introduced similar measures this year. At Elkhart General Hospital, flu shots are now mandatory for anyone who regularly enters the hospital including all medical staff, paid employees, students, vendors and volunteers, said EGH spokeswoman Shelley Rody. Rody said four people at EGH chose not to receive a flu vaccination but could not confirm whether they were still employed by the hospital.
GINGERICH’S FAITH WALK
Gingerich does not discount the hospital’s position of wanting to protect patients from illness, but she said the flu vaccination is not right for her.
“We all have different faith walks,” said Gingerich, who describes herself as a nondenominational Christian. “I feel like in my personal faith walk, I have felt instructed not to get a flu vaccination, but it’s also the whole matter of the right to choose what I put in my body and what I feel God wants me to put in versus someone mandating what I put in. It is a very big issue for me.”
Gingerich was horrified that she was forced to choose between her beliefs and her job, but ultimately she said she knew what the right path was for her.
“I feel like our religious freedoms are being challenged and not honored in a country that supposedly has these freedoms,” she said.
Hospital staff had the option of filing medical or religious exemptions from the vaccination, so Gingerich and three others hired Alan Phillips, an attorney in North Carolina, to write exemption recommendations. Phillips said he worked with around 200 health care workers in at least 25 states on vaccine rights issues this fall.
A group at the hospital reviewed the exemption requests using guidelines provided by the CDC and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, McDonald said. One of the most common medical exemptions is for people with severe allergies to the vaccine, but religious exemptions are a little more complicated, McDonald said.
“The EEOC’s guidelines specify that just because there are beliefs that are strongly held does not mean that they are protected by a religious blanket, so social, political and economic philosophies and personal preferences, those are not religious beliefs,” McDonald explained.
‘RIPPLING OF THE WATERS’
Ethel Hoover, who was a critical care nurse at the Goshen hospital, wrestled with the idea of receiving a flu shot and ultimately refused the vaccination. Hoover’s exemption request was denied, and she was let go from her job roughly a month short of her 22nd anniversary at the hospital.
The last time Hoover had a flu shot was about 20 years ago. Hoover said she got sick and decided to never take one again, adding that she was also worried about long-term health effects from the vaccination.
“Your body has its natural responses to fight off certain viruses and infections, and if you continually inoculate your body with something that’s not even guaranteed from preventing you from getting it, why would you do it,” Hoover asked.
According to the most recent information from the CDC, the flu vaccine is about 60 percent effective, but effectiveness varies from year to year.
Hoover pointed out that patients are given the option to refuse flu vaccinations and said she should be afforded that same right.
“As a nurse, my passion was to be the best advocate I could be for my patients,” she said. “They knew I could be there for them even if sometimes it caused a rippling of the waters, but as a nurse there was no advocate for me except for several physicians who attempted to go to bat for our cause, but they were denied. So, what message is this sending to the public if this institution shoots down their own patient advocates?”
A ‘GOD-LED’ DECISION
Sue Schrock started hearing talk about a vaccination mandate last year. Schrock, like Gingerich and Hoover, was a nurse at the hospital in Goshen, and like her two colleagues was let go from her job after her exemption application was rejected, and she refused to receive a vaccination.
Schrock believes that there are other steps people can take to stay healthy rather than getting a flu shot, like taking natural vitamins, eating well and exercising. The last time she had a flu shot was about 30 years ago.
“I just learned more and more about natural healing,” she said. “We’ve been using natural products for a good 20 years, and that’s the way we believe healing takes place.”
Schrock said her decision to decline the vaccination was, in part, “God-led.”
“I’m a pretty quiet, spiritual person, and for me, it was a big decision, but it was something that was very meaningful for me not to have in my body,” she said.
This experience has changed Schrock’s outlook on IU Health Goshen Hospital.
“I don’t care if I ever walk through those doors again, but I’m going to miss it,” she said. “I love my hospice patients, and I love my hospice colleagues. I will miss them immensely.”
THE COST OF STANDING UP
The three former nurses, Schrock, Hoover and Gingerich, were not surprised at their firings. They knew exactly what was on the line when they turned down the flu shots.
“I was prepared to stand up for my rights and go for it,” said Schrock, who had worked for the hospital as a hospice nurse on and off for the past 40 years.
Schrock said she will continue working as an on-call nurse at a doctor’s office in Goshen while she hunts for another job.
Hoover said she does not plan to go back into nursing unless it is for private care. Like Schrock and Gingerich, she will miss her job at the hospital.
“I have enjoyed my patients, and my patients have thoroughly enjoyed me,” Hoover said.
Gingerich said leaving her job was one of the toughest decisions she’s ever had to make.
“I worked with a phenomenal group of people in the oncology unit, and I miss them terribly,” she said. “They are also very sad. Colleagues overall at the hospital were horrified that this was happening, and I’m going to miss them.”