A nurse who had an affair with the husband of a severely disabled patient has escaped suspension.
The nurse denied a professional misconduct charge, arguing that nursing ethics did not specifically cover the situation and that the patient would not have known of the relationship because of her condition - a view disputed by others.
The patient, a mother of two daughters, had a severe stroke which left her virtually unable to talk and confined to an electric wheelchair.
The nurse, a senior member of her profession, declined to comment to the Weekend Herald last night.
She has won permanent name suppression from a Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal panel, chaired by lawyer David Carden, which put her on a good behaviour bond after finding her guilty of professional misconduct.
She is one of a number of nurses who sit on tribunal panels judging other nurses.
Health Minister Tony Ryall, who appoints tribunal members, said: "I've yet to be notified of the case and will consider the matter then. My experience is that the health professions expect high standards from people on the disciplinary tribunal and that is the test."
In a decision released yesterday, the tribunal suspended the nurse from practising for six months, but put that part of its sentence on hold for a year, "on condition that there is no complaint, disciplinary process, or issue arising against Ms E [the nurse] during that time".
The tribunal also imposed professional supervision for a year and ordered her to pay $21,000 towards the costs of her prosecution.
She was found to have had an "intimate and/or sexual relationship" with the husband starting in June 2009, about six months after the patient was admitted to a district health board-run hospital that has not been identified.
The nurse had only limited contact with the patient after the relationship started, and moved to another hospital the following January.
The tribunal said she had apparently lost sight of her obligations to the family of the couple involved, referred to as Mr and Ms S.
"Mr and Ms S have two daughters ... What the tribunal is facing is a couple who had an apparently significantly close and loving relationship before Ms S had the subarachnoid haemorrhages.
"They were working together ... They had their two daughters then living with them and apparently there was a compact family unit."
Conflicting evidence was given at the hearing relating to any perception by the patient of her husband's relationship with the nurse.
It was put to the nurse that, "we don't know, do we, whether she knows or doesn't know?"
Ms E: To my knowledge, she does not know.
Question: Of course, others believe that she does know?
Ms E: I think you need to ask that question of Dr Y, who had the most knowledge and understanding.
Q: And the problem for [Ms S] is that, if she does know, she's got no way of expressing a view either way, has she?
Ms E: I think [Ms S] is able to express what she likes and she dislikes, and in the dealings that I have had with [her], there is no expression of dislike towards me.
The tribunal said it was distinctly possible the patient might have known of the relationship and reacted adversely to it without having been able to express that or without it being apparent to others.
The tribunal rejected the argument put forward by the nurse's lawyer that Nurses Organisation and Nursing Council codes gave little guidance on intimate relationships with a patient's spouse.
It said that although there might not be references to spouses, partners or families, the principles were clear: "The nurse must take into account the total family unit."
The tribunal said its decision needed to send a strong message.
"The tribunal does not accept that [the nurse] recognises and takes responsibility for her improper conduct. That message must be given loud and clear."