On a balmy spring night, I took a break from my graveyard shift in our local emergency department. As I breathed in some fresh air and stretched my back, my eyes caught a set of headlights careening into the parking lot, headed for the portico under which I was standing. Because the nature of my job as an ED nurse was unpredictable and chaotic, I quickly realized that my break was about to end, in favor of helping a patient who needed urgent medical attention in the middle of the night.
But what I couldn’t have predicted was the scene that unfolded before my eyes moments later.
As the car came to a screeching halt, a large man jumped out of the driver’s seat and started screaming that his friend was bleeding in the backseat. He whipped open the backdoor and I immediately saw that his friend was in bad shape. Blood was everywhere, and he was bleeding from a gaping gunshot wound in his abdomen. As I assessed the situation, I calmly told the driver that I’d be right back, that I needed to get help as well as a stretcher.
The driver became enraged, grabbed my wrist and yanked me toward the car. He shoved my head into the backseat, then blocked my exit from the car with his body. He continued to scream that I wasn’t allowed to move until I helped his friend. Without my stethoscope, medical equipment, and extra hands to help me move the patient safely, I was helpless. When I protested and begged the driver to let me get help, he pulled his jacket back and showed me the gun in his waist.
I was trapped and terrified.
Thankfully, a security guard saw the scene unfolding and immediately helped get the situation under control. My colleagues rushed out to assist me, and we got the patient safely inside. The police were called, and we filed a report. But sadly, that wouldn’t be the last time a family member, friend, or visitor to the ED would cause a disturbance that resulted in injury or fear for the health care workers on duty.
I was 24 years old and barely out of nursing school when I was assaulted by the driver of that car. It remains the single scariest moment of my career, but my story is just one of thousands where nurses put their well-being and safety aside in the name of honoring our oath to do no harm and help patients when duty calls.
In my 20-year career as a nurse, I have been grabbed, groped, shoved, and screamed at by patients and family members. I have had angry family members follow me to my car after a shift, and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to call security to help me safely restrain an agitated patient.
I was stuck by a dirty needle when a confused patient overpowered me and knocked me to the ground after I administered an injection. Thankfully, my bruises from the fall healed and I suffered no ill health effects from my needlestick, but I spent months worrying about exposure to hepatitis, HIV, and other blood borne illnesses (thankfully post exposure prophylaxis treatments can reduce these risks significantly).
My stories are not unique. If you ask any nurse about the “secret underbelly of nursing” and workplace violence, you will be horrified by tales of unimaginable violence and disturbing incidents. And it’s happening every day in every hospital across the U.S.
Though most nurses will tell you that they don’t let the fear of being attacked by a patient (or patient’s family) rule their career, a nurse will also tell you that safety is at the forefront of their mind every minute of every shift. We are highly trained to not only protect ourselves and our patient in a violent situation, but also hospital staff and other patients on the unit. Though many hospitals have procedures that nurses and medical personnel must follow when violence erupts, hospital administrators are not bound by law to have procedures in place to protect health care workers on the job. As such, policies and procedures are vastly different from institution to institution.
And while 33 states have laws with penalties for people who assault health care workers, the laws vary from state to state, and in some states, they are only specific to emergency room or mental health care workers. We need to do more to protect all health care workers from the very real dangers of workplace violence in medical settings. Period.
Perhaps the most important weapon in combating workplace violence lies with the patient and their family members. If you see a nurse being assaulted or verbally abused, call security. Speak up. Use your outside voice to alert other members of the staff to send help. Write to your local representatives and ask them to support legislature that protects your community health care workers. Not only will you be working to keep your neighborhood nurses safe, you will also be ensuring a safer experience for yourself the next time you, or your loved ones, have to utilize hospital services.
And when you hear stories from your friends about the times they verbally abused a nurse or a doctor, this nurse would appreciate it if you’d remind your pals that yelling at or being physically violent toward a health care worker is never okay. We are just trying to do our jobs and having to dodge a punch is no way to spend your workday, trust me.