Widow Seeks to Hold Hospital Accountable with an Internet Petition

Catherine Hetmanski's husband jumped from the roof of Rahway Hospital in 2002 while he was under the hospital's care. The NJ Supreme Court won't hear her case. She wants help in changing their minds.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 made an indelible impact on Americans. For Catherine Hetmanski, it made her a widow.

Her husband, Fred, didn't die at the World Trade Center that day. In fact, he wasn't even in New York City, although he and his wife could see the burning Twin Towers from the deck of their Carteret home.

Fred Hetmanski died a little more than a year later, and not just from the severe depression which caused Catherine to have him admitted to a local hospital.

Catherine believed he was safe all the while he was in the hospital. Even to the moment when he was left unattended, climbed to the roof of the building, and jumped.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, Catherine's world changed. Her husband "thought the world was coming to an end. He was never the same. He had been a weightlifter and a jogger, always physically fit," she said. "He lost weight. He couldn't sleep. He was a wreck."

What Catherine Hetmanski can't get over to this day is that the day her husband died, he had checked into a hospital to keep him safe from the black depression that hadn't lifted since 9/11.

"I didn't know what to do. He was falling apart," Catherine said, fingering the fading pictures of her husband, when he was apple-cheeked and healthy and the center of her family's universe.

After the September 11 terrorist attack, Fred had become obsessed with the tragedies. He kept watching television news, seeing the planes crash into the skyscrapers over and over again, watching the Pentagon burn, staring blankly at the blackened fields and scorched trees in Shanksville, Pa., where the "Let's Roll" United 93 flight crashed. 

"He couldn't get over it. He just cracked up," she said, her voice tightening.

A boilerman for API Foils in Rahway, Fred Hetmanski had enough of an inner core of discipline to keep at his job. He didn't miss work, his widow said, providing for the couple's children.

Dies almost a year to the day of 9/11 attacks

On September 5, 2002, a few days after the one year anniversary of the terror attacks, it all became too much, even for the stoic Fred Hetmanski.

"I was giving the kids a bath, and he came to me, saying I need help. He was begging for help. There's something the matter with me, he said," Catherine related.

She drove him to the emergency room at Rahway Hospital,  as it was known then.  Rahway Hospital would be merged with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and become part of that hospital group the following year, in 2003. 

Fred was admitted overnight, Catherine said. "I was relieved."

The next morning, Catherine called the hospital and said how her husband was doing. 

"They said, we discharged him. I said, are you kidding me?" she said in shock. "They let him walk from Rahway Hospital to Carteret and didn't even call me."

She ran out to find her husband, and there he was, walking home on Hazelwood Avenue in Rahway. 

It wasn't the end of the problem. Fred went to work on Friday, September 6, but he was worse. "He still wasn't sleeping or eating. We took him to his sister's house in Avenel, she's a nurse, and he started talking crazy with her," Catherine said.

Fred's sister took him back to Rahway Hospital at 1 am, where he was admitted. 

"They were going to transfer him to Newark Beth Israel on Monday. They won't let him come home to change his clothes."

Left unattended to wander hospital halls alone

As near as Catherine can reconstruct, her husband was taken for x-rays and left alone in the x-ray room. 

"He was wandering the hospital. A nurse saw him and tells him to go back to x-ray, but didn't go with him," she said.

There were at least two sets of doors that should've been locked but weren't, Catherine said.

Somehow Fred made it out to a fireman's ladder, climbed to the roof of Rahway Hospital and jumped off.

"I got a phone call at 3 pm. They said, there's been an accident."

When Catherine got to the hospital, her husband was in cardiac arrest. "They worked on him for an hour. They only told me later he had jumped off the roof."

For the Hetmanski family - Catherine and her four fatherless children - the nightmare wasn't over yet.

'Negligent, but not responsible'

Catherine spent 11 years, between working three jobs to feed and house her children, in court to get the hospital to admit its mistakes.

The case eventually went in front of a New Brunswick jury, which found the hospital to be negligent, but not responsible for Fred Hetmanski's death. "My lawyer was dumbfounded. I had two lawyers and wound up with three," Catherine said.

In January, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and that should be the end of Catherine's legal avenues.

There is one small hope, a faint one, she said. The state Supreme Court could change their mind and agree to hear the case.

Catherine started a petition on change.org for the Court to revisit the case.

"My husband was under the hospital's care. They are saying he caused his own injuries. The man was out of his mind. He couldn't function. 

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital released a statement about the Hetmanski case.

"We are sympathetic towards the Hetmanski family for their loss. The case was adjudicated by a jury and subsequent court rulings have confirmed that the hospital provided proper and appropriate care. We hope the family finds solace and comfort in the years ahead," the statement read.

"I cannot stop and let this go. It's so wrong and it's making me and everyone who knows me...." Catherine's voice trails off.

She asks for anyone interested to sign her petition and to pass the link around. So far, she has slightly more than a hundred signatures.

"Remember, this is the same hospital that sent me a survey the week after my husband died. They wanted me to rate how his stay was in Rahway," Catherine said, a sardonic smile on her lips. 

"I know I can get justice, if the court will change their mind." 

Visit this link to sign Catherine Hetmanski's petition for the NJ Supreme Court to take up the case of her husband's death: http://www.change.org/petitions/nj-supreme-court-let-hetmanski-vs-rahway-hospital-have-a-retrial

catherine hetmanski March 14, 2013 at 04:58 PM
I still do not understand WHY he wasn't watched?? He could NOT control his thoughts or actions and THEY KNEW IT! thank you for you comment, this is so very hard for our children.
Really April 16, 2013 at 06:50 PM
Yes, I totally agree the hospital is at fault for not "treating" the illness.
Really April 16, 2013 at 06:57 PM
Over the years, hospitals have gone from one extreme to another. Years ago, anyone showing any mental stress/distress was sent to a State Psychiatric hospital where they were treated pretty severely with over medicating and shock treatment. There were a lot of "accidental deaths" in those facilities. It's a tough situation. I know of a family's tragic loss of someone that was put in one of the Psychiatric facilities, admitted they were being over medicated, died of sudden "heart attack" and dismissed all questions about the autopsy. The family was in shock and did not follow thru quick enough to get a second autopsy. It's a tough topic either way.
Really April 16, 2013 at 07:02 PM
I also have first hand knowledge of family & friends that have lost Close family members to suicide and I have attended many group sessions for S.A.S. (survivors after suicide) and took a long time to realize that once a person makes that decision, it is Very hard to stop. (I accept it as a Cancer of the Mind). I wish you and your family all of the best. I know how deeply it effects the family forever and you can only try to fight (depression, grief) after it every day and try to stay positive. God Bless you and your Family and friends.
catherine hetmanski April 19, 2013 at 01:07 PM
thank you for reading and hopefully sharing this article. I am still so upset that the justice system and especially the health care system FAILED a very needy man who was begging for help.


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