Skip to content



Top state official promises probe of strangulation incident at Tewksbury State Hospital

Boston, MA. – January 25: Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders speaks to the media on the COVID-19 pandemic at the State House on January 25, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts.   (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ Boston Herald)
Boston, MA. – January 25: Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders speaks to the media on the COVID-19 pandemic at the State House on January 25, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ Boston Herald)

TEWKSBURY — After calling for a thorough investigation into the management at Tewksbury State Hospital earlier this week, state Rep. Colleen Garry of Dracut said Health and Human Services is ready to launch a probe.

Garry called for the probe after an incident at the hospital on Aug. 8 in which a patient allegedly strangled a nurse, nearly to death. The nurse, of Dracut, is a constituent of Garry’s, which prompted her involvement.

Garry said she spoke with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders on Wednesday. She found her to be receptive of the concerns she raised, which included “a culture of fear and retaliation.” According to Garry, many former employees have been afraid to speak publicly.

The state Department of Public Health said safety of staff and patients is critically important and investigation into the incident from Aug. 8 is currently ongoing. They added the incident was reported on Aug. 9 and hospital leadership took action to increase the number of nursing staff and frequency of observation of the patient.

On Aug. 12, DPH administrators met with Tewksbury State Hospital leadership to review safety measures for staff members and patients. They continue to evaluate plans for the future for the safety of all parties involved. Hospital leadership is still in contact with the victim, who is currently recovering at home.

Since calling for an investigation into Tewksbury State Hospital’s management, Garry said she has heard from former employees who have been scared to come forward previously.

“One gentleman sent me a message and said he was punched and his trachea was broken,” Garry said. “Another (person) said she was injured on the job, they were planning for her to come back, she came back and was injured again, she went out. Then they want her to come back again too early and they fired her for the abandonment of her job.”

State Rep. Dave Robertson of Tewksbury said “agreements are a good first step” but he still wants to see more information. He wants to see “timelines” and “scopes” of what exactly is going to be reviewed to have full confidence in a probe.

“I feel more comfortable when the timeline is set, we have the full list of names of folks doing it and we have the updates and things are going underway,” Robertson said.

Jim Durkin, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, said it was “unusual” that the incident on Aug. 8 made it into the public eye. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence Durkin said. However, he is hopeful some good may be able to come of it.

AFSCME Council 93 represents staff members at Tewksbury State Hospital.

“Our members, in Tewksbury, and across all human services facilities are regularly, weekly, mandated to work multiple double shifts, because there is just not enough staffing in these facilities,” Durkin said. “And when you have a severe staffing shortage, incidents like this are likely to occur and continue to occur on a regular basis.”

Durkin said one problem has been the state’s early retirement incentive program. For every five employees who retire, facilities like Tewksbury State Hospital are only able to hire one new person, Durkin said.

In Durkin’s view, problems with recruitment and retention have been exacerbated by the consolidation of human resources. According to Durkin, it can take three to four months to bring a new hire on board. Additionally, internal promotions are taking three to four months, as they go through reference checks.

Employing the use of metal detectors at the entrance of facilities and ensuring appropriate staffing levels are ways to ensure better safety in the facilities, Durkin said.

“You’re never going to completely eliminate the danger to staff in these facilities. But there are a number of steps that the state could be taking to reduce the likelihood of these attacks. And it starts with making sure that the facilities are adequately staffed,” Durkin said.

Durkin would like to see union involvement in any investigation.

Robertson said he wants to see data by ward, over time. Not cumulative data. Additionally, Robertson said he wants to see the time between incidents happening and when they’re being reported. He also said he wants to know that the reporting process is as easy as possible and the sole responsibility to document the events isn’t placed on the victim.

To quell concerns of retaliation and harassment, Garry promised any investigation would have an option to remain anonymous. She also urged people to work with her office to ensure transparency.

According to Garry, Valenda Liptak will be leading the investigation into Tewksbury State Hospital.

Liptak is the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital and was named the interim administrator of Holyoke Soldiers Home in 2020 after a widespread COVID-19 outbreak that drew national scrutiny.

“I’m very excited. I hear wonderful things about about her and her work and what she was able to do to clean up what had happened out there,” Garry said.

Since the incident occurred, Garry said she has learned of continued inadequate staffing levels. The ward where the nurse was attacked only had nine or 10 people working, where it should have had 15 or 16. The day after the incident, staffing returned to 15. However, it has since dropped back to nine or 10.

Garry further asserted hospital administrators did not report the incident from Aug. 8 until Wednesday. Under state law, they are required to do so within a seven-day period.

She said since Aug. 8, another staff member was injured by a patient, which she said was “nothing as serious” as the Aug. 8  incident.

Garry is particularly concerned about staffing issues and staffing culture, given the type of patients staff are working with. Tewksbury State Hospital often takes on patients who are refused by other facilities. Other patients, like the alleged aggressor in the Aug. 8 incident, have no control over their actions because of physical and mental health conditions.

Robertson echoed her sentiment.

“It’s frustrating, because these folks that are in the hospital, they’re vulnerable. There’s really no private alternatives or programs or anything like that. They’re relying on the charity of society, really,” Robertson said. “These staff and these nurses, they’re not there to be rich or famous. They’re there because they just want to help folks.”

Previously, Garry and Robertson joined with fellow representatives Tom Golden, Tram Nyguen and Rady Mom to pen a letter to Sudders. The letter outlined five action items after reports of personal protective equipment shortages, mandatory double shifts and lacking transparency at Tewksbury State Hospital.

Dracut Rep. Colleen Garry reports strangulation of nurse at Tewksbury State Hospital, calls for investigation