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Danger zone: Workplace violence touches many in nursing

Monday November 12, 2012
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As healthcare workers, we never know whether we will return home in the same condition in which we started work — or even whether we will get home at all.

A former coworker recently told me she was assaulted by a 24-year-old male and was waiting for shoulder surgery as a result of the assault. She is in her 50s and a grandmother.

When I asked her what happened, she took a deep breath, started to rub her left arm and looked away from me. She spoke slowly and deliberately. We were at a restaurant and she was pushing her food around her plate rather than eating it. She was restless in her chair, shifting from side to side. Then she looked me straight in the eyes and said:

"I buzzed myself into the main treatment area [the ED] to go home, but first I wanted to check on one of the patients I just assessed in triage. As I walked in I heard a sound like a scuffle. When I looked in that direction, I saw our security guard under a patient on the floor. I yelled for security backup and a stretcher."

The whole time this nurse was telling her story, she continued protecting her left arm. Tears welled in her eyes. After a while she composed herself and continued with her story. She told me the patient was on top of the security guard, punching him. The patient was over 6-feet tall and looked strong. When the security backup arrived, they were able to get the patient off the security guard. My former coworker said that "the stretcher arrived and I ended up getting caught between the wall and the stretcher. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get out of the way. It was getting chaotic."

As the patient lay on the stretcher and security started to restrain him, my former coworker said, "he started kicking, hitting, pushing and punching. He kept kicking me over and over. He threatened each and every one of us, saying he would not only kill us, but he would kill our families. I am so sore I haven’t been able to sleep."

I asked whether she had told her family what happened. She was surprised by my question. "Yes, I spoke of the assault to my family. They were horrified and think I am crazy to work there. This isn’t the first time I have been assaulted, but the saddest thing was when my 4-year-old grandson saw my bruises. He was frightened. I couldn’t imagine telling him that a patient hurt me, so I lied and said I fell! The look on his face was enough to make me cry. He gently touched the bruises; he was so careful while he was outlining the bruises. When I looked at his face, he said to me, 'Grandma you are really hurt!’ I went to hug him and as I looked at him he was crying.

"The patient who kicked me has hurt not only me, but my whole family. I could just scream if I had the energy and I wasn’t in so much pain. I have been living on workers’ comp. I get so angry thinking that a young man thinks it is all right to kick someone the way he kicked me and not care."

She was looking away while saying this, then she looked at me and I could see the pain in her eyes. Her lower lip was quivering and the tears she had controlled now were rolling down her cheeks. "I went into nursing to help people, not to get hurt and be threatened," she said. "What is going to happen if I won’t be able to work?"

Workplace violence is out of control; too many nurses have been injured, like my former coworker. In 2009 there were 2,050 assaults and violent acts reported by RNs, requiring an average of four days away from work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Emergency Nurses Association reported that more than 50% of ED nurses had experienced violence by patients on the job, and 25% had experienced 20 or more violent incidents in the past three years.

This nurse walked out of her house and drove to work like she did every other day. But this time she wasn’t the same when she went home. •


Sheila Wilson, RN, BSN, MPH, is a retired ED nurse in Massachusetts. She currently is involved with the Stop Healthcare Violence campaign (www.StopHealthcareViolence.org). Write to editor@Nurse.com or post a comment below.