KERMIT, Tex. — It occurred to Anne Mitchell as she was writing the letter that she might lose her job, which is why she chose not to sign it. But it was beyond her conception that she would be indicted and threatened with 10 years in prison for doing what she knew a nurse must: inform state regulators that a doctor at her rural hospital was practicing bad medicine.
"It was surreal," said Mrs. Mitchell, 52, the wife of an oil field mechanic and mother of a teenage son. "I said how can this be? You can't go to prison for doing the right thing."
But in what may be an unprecedented prosecution, Mrs. Mitchell is scheduled to stand trial in state court on Monday for "misuse of official information," a third-degree felony in Texas.
The prosecutor said he would show that Mrs. Mitchell had a history of making "inflammatory" statements about Dr. Rolando G. Arafiles Jr. and intended to damage his reputation when she reported him last April to the Texas Medical Board, which licenses and disciplines doctors.
Mrs. Mitchell counters that as an administrative nurse, she had a professional obligation to protect patients from what she saw as a pattern of improper prescribing and surgical procedures — including a failed skin graft that Dr. Arafiles performed in the emergency room, without surgical privileges. He also sutured a rubber tip to a patient's crushed finger for protection, an unconventional remedy that was later flagged as inappropriate by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Charges against a second nurse, Vickilyn Galle, who helped Mrs. Mitchell write the letter, were dismissed at the prosecutor's discretion last week.
The case has been infused with the small-town politics of this wind-whipped city of 5,200 in the heart of the Permian Basin, 10 miles from the New Mexico border. The seeming conflicts of interest are as abundant as the cattle grazing among the pump jacks and mesquite.
When the medical board notified Dr. Arafiles of the anonymous complaint, he protested to his friend, the Winkler County sheriff, that he was being harassed. The sheriff, an admiring patient who credits the doctor with saving him after a heart attack, obtained a search warrant to seize the two nurses' work computers and found the letter.
Both sides acknowledge that the case has polarized the community, and the judge has moved the trial to a neighboring county.