Nurse Fired For Proselytizing (December 1994)

Last year Freethought Today reported the sad news that Bess Frees, 73, who had been a member of the Foundation since it began in 1978, had died. This is a post mortem of what happened to her when she was dying.

Our staff had met and enjoyed corresponding with Bess, who attended early annual conventions and who served as a Foundation Board member from Minnesota. Her activism was curtailed only by illness. Bess believed firmly in freedom from religion, always calling herself a “devout atheist,” as her friend Paul Keller, another Minnesota Foundation member, recalled.

But Paul Keller discovered, in investigating some chance remarks, that Bess Frees did not die free from religion. Not only was her funeral religious, contrary to her explicit instructions, but Paul learned that Bess was proselytized by a fanatical nurse while she was “delirious, defenseless and dying.”

His first sign that something was wrong came at the funeral home, where he noticed pictures of Jesus on the wall. Bess had told Paul how she had made funeral arrangements years before, specifying no religion. When he asked the attendant from the funeral home about the presence of religion, he was told “Bess had a change of heart at the end.”

The next day he attended the funeral. “At one point in the service which was requested by Bess to be 100% humanistic, a preacher from the Home where Bess had been staying and whom Bess had detested, was brought in to talk. He said he shared the word of his lord with her the Tuesday before she died. (He never said she accepted any of it, though.)”

Paul spoke with a couple there who told him they had visited Bess about 12 days before she died, and that she stated she had not changed her philosophy and was not afraid of dying.

The day after the funeral, he received a phone call from an acquaintance saying she had met a nurse named Ruth at a cafe who was bragging about how she had cared for Bess on the night shift from the time she had had her stroke about 3-4 weeks earlier until she died, and how she had used the opportunity to try to indoctrinate Bess, well-known for her atheism. Ruth boasted that when Bess had said how alone she felt, she had told her “It was because God was not in her heart.” The nurse said she had Bess repeating bible verses, although Bess made objections, such as “But that would make me a hypocrite,” “But I’m a freethinker,” “But I don’t have faith.” The nurse admitted other nurses told her to stop it, warning her employees had been fired for less. But Ruth said she didn’t care if she got fired. She proudly related that she had apparently influenced Bess’s family to make the visitation and funeral religious over Bess’s written specifications, and to invite the preacher whom Bess had detested.

Paul, a life member of the Foundation who is no stranger to complaining about religion in public institutions, immediately acted on this information by asking for an investigation.

“I suggested that several laws were violated in the abuse, harassment and assault on Bess: the State Statute on Abuse and Neglect of a Patient, the State Statute on Harassment, Assault, the State Human Rights Act, the Minnesota Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, and the Statute on Abuse/Neglect which requires co-workers to report the abuse.”

A formal investigation was launched by the Minnesota Department of Health, which sent its report to Paul earlier this year.

Health Care Program Investigator Michael McGinnis found that the admission card for Bess Frees identified her as an atheist, and that she “was known to be an atheist.”

“The patient care notes in the identified patient’s medical record on 9/4/93 at 1:45 a.m. described the patient as calling out loudly stating, ‘I’m so lonely & afraid,’ and ‘I’m so lonely & I hurt so bad.’ In response to the patient’s statements, employee (E) [as the report identifies the nurse in question] documented a religious dialogue she had with the patient. In the documentation, employee (E) acknowledged that there was a period of time when the patient ‘didn’t believe in God,’ however (E) then proceeds to share her religious beliefs with the patient. Employee (E) documented that she was with the patient for 1 1/2 hours.”

The investigation discovered that the following day, the nurse’s supervisor, learning about the religious aspect of this conversation, informed the nurse it was not appropriate and took Bess Frees off her nursing assignment.

No further action was taken, but following Paul Keller’s formal complaint, “it was learned that employee (E) when off duty, had shared her 9/4/93 experience and conversation with the patient, including the patient’s reactions and emotions, with community people at the patient’s funeral and in a public place.”

She was then asked to sign a statement that she would not preach religion to patients and would not breach the confidentiality of patient information.

“Employee (E) refused to sign the statement which resulted in employee (E) being terminated. The incident was reported by the facility to the Minnesota Board of Nursing.”

Paul Keller said that the nurse apparently had returned to Bess Frees’ bedside at least four nights in a row, even after she was reassigned to other patients.

“Bess attempted to defend herself even in the hours just before her death,” Paul observes, “while being given hypos and having had an eventually lethal stroke just a few weeks before.

“If a Moslem nurse had done this to a Christian, had the patient repeating verses from the Koran, and influenced the family to change the funeral to be Islamic, would that be legal? If an atheist nurse had the dying Christian repeating that there is no God or devil, heaven or hell, and influenced the family to change the funeral to be nonreligious, would that be legal?

“Bess had been strongly atheist since before I met her, which was about 15 years ago. What was accomplished by doing this to Bess while she was delirious, defenseless and dying? The only thing that was accomplished was cruelty.”

Thanks to Paul Keller for pursuing his complaint.

Freedom From Religion Foundation