When a nurse is attacked
By Ann Kettering Sincox
Sometimes the bruises heal and you can shove the fact that you’ve been kicked or punched or spit on down to the lowest parts of your soul and keep practicing as a health care professional. "The patient was drunk," you think, "or doped up or mad or going through a psychiatric crisis and he couldn’t help himself." You keep practicing but you’re wary -- you know there are nurses who aren’t coming back to work after such an encounter. You hope your turn isn’t waiting for you on the next shift.
Violence against nurses on the job is increasing and it’s not always from the patients. Sometimes it’s a family member or a girlfriend or boyfriend. Emotions are out of control, substance abuse takes over a patient or family member’s judgment and things escalate, leaving one or more nurses and health care professionals gravely injured.
And the saddest thing about these injuries is that quite often broken bones and torn ligaments don’t heal correctly. When that happens, excellent nurses with years of expertise are sidelined from a career they love. The testimony from Terri Thuss, RN (sidebar) is heart breaking. One encounter with one out-of-control patient has left her permanently disabled and unable to practice direct care. That is robbery.
The bills Terri mentions, SB 642 and SB 643, will only be as effective as they are used in the hospital and medical care facility. Nurses must insist that warnings about the stiffer penalties are posted in public areas and that those who assault a health care professional be held accountable by the workplace. Too often administrators want to sweep incidents like assaults under the rug; it’s bad publicity to have a hospital where your nurses are sporting black eyes! Health care professionals must demand that a procedure for dealing with abusive situations be put into place and that the procedure includes involving law enforcement. To do less is to have a law that is designed to protect health care professionals but has no teeth.
Continue to watch the MNA website at www.minurses.org for new information about SB 642 and SB 643’s process through the Michigan House and Senate. MNA may ask you to contact your legislator and encourage him or her to support the bills. When that call to action comes, please step forward and make your voice heard! These bills are important for the safety of all health care professionals!
ER nurse Terri Thuss, RN, was working the night shift at Alpena Regional Medical Center (ARMC) when a male patient entered the facility throwing beer cans and acting belligerent. Security guards arrived and escorted him to an exam room to be evaluated by a doctor. Once in the exam room, the patient pushed the security guard and attempted to go toward other patients’ rooms. He yelled, swore, swung his arms and threw things.
This patient was assigned to Terri, who attempted to defuse the situation by talking to the man and steering him away from other patients, to no avail. A code "gray" was called (which means uncooperative patient, nurse needs assistance now); the police were also contacted.
The police arrived quickly and subdued the patient. Over a dozen people were simultaneously involved in keeping this man restrained and contained in a secure area: five police officers, security guards, housekeeping workers, a clinical assistant and three nurses. The man continued to fight, even though he had been placed in handcuffs.
Once the patient was finally placed onto a cart and returned to the exam room, the police remained by his bedside. He continued to fight all staff. Medication was ordered to calm the patient, and it was administered by injection while the police restrained the man. The doctor ordered a blood test and IV fluids, and these orders were carried out while the patient flailed and kicked.
As a result of this incident, three staff members were injured, including Terri, who injured her upper back and left shoulder. Her muscles, which were torn during the struggle, have healed back together incorrectly, causing muscular atrophy, a reduced blood supply, and muscle death. Terri now suffers with daily pain. She has a sunken area in her back and cannot work. Specialists have been unable to find a solution for her. The other nurse who was injured tore all the ligaments and tendons in her right elbow. She required surgery and is currently going through physical therapy to rehab her arm.
The hostile patient was a former cage fighter, 23 years old and very strong. Subsequently, he was charged with six different counts and agreed to a plea bargain for two counts. He received a sentence of one week in jail with one day served and then deferred one year, a suspended license, and one weekend in rehab. He paid a fine for his acts of hostility.
Terri Thuss, RN, has seen her dreams and her life shattered quite literally. She had dreamed of being a nurse ever since she was small. "I was so proud when that dream finally came true and I could say I was a registered nurse," Terri shares. "Now I am no longer able to perform my job. I don’t know if I am ever going to be able to go back to work."
Terri’s identity as a registered nurse and her means of livelihood have been ripped from her because the law doesn’t protect healthcare professionals. There are laws that penalize murderers and drunk drivers, but there are no laws to protect healthcare workers from violence in the normal course of their jobs.
SB 642 and 643 would ensure that patients like this young man would get stiffer penalties. The penalty he received was nothing more than a slap on the wrist. He is free to live life to the fullest while Terri Thuss and others like her are left to live with pain and uncertain futures.
SB 642 and 643, if passed, will act as a strong deterrent to violence, in addition to punishing those who physically mistreat healthcare professionals when they are doing their jobs. Terri Thuss has come to terms with the fact that these bills come too late to help her; however, knowing that they may protect other healthcare professionals in the future gives her a little satisfaction.