The paramedic faced a dilemma. After responding to the home of a woman with an open wound in February 2016, he was ordered by a doctor back at the hospital to drill a catheter into her arm.
But the woman, a believer in alternative medicine, refused the treatment. Instead, the paramedic offered to perform Reiki, a Japanese healing technique based on “life force energy” that many doctors believe lacks scientific credibility. The paramedic was fired days later.
In a case that raised questions about paramedics’ responsibilities to their patients versus their employers, a jury decided last week that the man, Michael Senisch, was wrongfully terminated by AtlantiCare for how he handled the situation.
Patrick Hill, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who teaches ethics and law, agreed that Senisch made the right call.
“He’s not at liberty to overrule a decision and force treatment on a patient who doesn’t want it,” Hill said, adding of the doctor’s order: “It may well be the correct medical decision, but again, with a competent patient, that’s still the patient’s prerogative to say, `No, thank you.’ ”
The jury awarded Senisch, who lives in Bridgeton, Cumberland County, $90,000 for back pay and emotional distress, according to the Douglass and Burnham law groups representing him.
Senisch is also hoping to return to work as a paramedic, a role he performed for 34 years before he was fired.
A spokeswoman for AtlantiCare, which serves southeastern New Jersey, said the health system was disappointed by the verdict.
“We believe the facts presented to the jury established that all of our actions were for legitimate reasons and in accordance with the law,” said Jennifer Tornetta, the spokeswoman. “We are evaluating our options for post-trial motions and, if necessary, an appeal. The safety of our patients is always our highest priority.”
The patient at the center of the case was Wendy Johnson, the co-owner a shop selling gemstones, essential oils, and other New Age merchandise in Atlantic County.
When paramedics arrived at Johnson’s Mays Landing home three years ago, they found on her breast an open wound roughly the size of a fist that she had been treating unsuccessfully with colloidal silver, according to the complaint filed by Senisch’s attorneys. Her house was decorated with New Age crystals and smelled of incense.
Johnson said she was reluctant to go to a hospital because a trip there five years earlier had resulted in a staph infection.
Another paramedic on the scene tried twice to insert an IV tube into her arm but was unsuccessful. Senisch then called an AtlantiCare doctor, who recommended an intraosseous infusion, or IO — drilling a catheter into a bone in her arm to help pump in fluids.
According to the complaint, Johnson twice refused the procedure, as did her husband, who said, “She would not want that.”
After a third failed attempt at establishing IV access on the way to the hospital, Senisch asked if she would like him to perform Reiki. Senisch, it turns out, was a certified Reiki practitioner.
Johnson agreed, and Senisch put his hands over her wound without touching it, asking if he was “warming” the area and “relieving the discomfort.” Johnson said yes.
After they arrived at emergency room, however, a doctor became visibly angry with Senisch when he discovered paramedics had not established either IV or IO access, according to the complaint.
Senisch was fired three days later for failing to provide the recommended medical treatment and using Reiki, the complaint says.
Hill, the Rutgers professor, said he saw nothing wrong with Senisch performing Reiki on a patient who consented to it.
“There’s nothing about it that is in any way invasive that would have any kind of immediate or subsequent ill effect on the patient,” Hill said. “It would be akin in some respects to his holding her hand or putting his arm around her shoulders and just comforting her.”
Johnson died about six weeks later. But before she did, she said Senisch was a “wonderful paramedic” for honoring her belief system, according to the complaint.
Since then, her family has tried to help Senisch get his job back and has supported him publicly. In an interview with CBS Philly earlier this year, Brian Johnson, Wendy’s husband, said Senisch “did everything correctly.”