Last year, my father was a patient at Ellis Hospital for 37 continuous days before succumbing to brain cancer.
During the countless hours spent at his bedside, I came to meet many of the registered nurses who cared for him. Most were excellent caregivers and by all appearances seemed to be dedicated to their patients and their profession. Some I liked, others not so much. This experience, however, got me to thinking about the difference in the approach to patient care from the last time I spent a chunk of my life at the bedside of a family member, in the late 1970s.
Back then, nurses wore white dresses or the occasional white pant suit, starched white caps were still in vogue and, at least at St. Clare’s, “total patient care” by RNs and LPNs was the standard protocol, with nurse’s aides used to fill in the gaps. Today, it’s hard to tell the nurse from the panoply of assorted technicians and “aides” without a scorecard or at least a color chart.
While sitting in the waiting room in my dad’s wing at Ellis one day I began leafing through the pages of a nursing magazine and found one story headline that caught my eye: “Nurses Continue to be Victims of Workplace Violence.” Without giving it much thought, I naively assumed that while nurses were probably yelled at by patients in pain and the occasional frustrated and frazzled family member, any real danger they faced was outside the hospital proper.
The use of the word workplace was most likely a grabber meant to get the reader’s attention, as the story would undoubtedly deal with nurses who are robbed or attacked in dimly lighted big-city hospital parking garages. I put the magazine down not giving much more than a passing thought to the story the article might tell.
A few weeks ago, while attending a meeting at the New York State Nurses Association in Latham, I happened upon a brochure and there it was again, what seemed to me at the time another piece with a misleading title “Preventing Violence Against Nurses: Strategies for Controlling Workplace Violence.”
This time my curiosity was truly piqued and I opened the piece up and found some eye-opening statistics: The health-care industry has the highest rate of non-fatal assaults of all industries; nurses are three times more likely to encounter violence on the job than any other professionals; and 16 percent of the nursing turnover is a result of violence-related occurrences. For someone who has for a long time fancied himself a research guru, I was shocked at how much I didn’t know about this issue. So much for dimly lit parking areas!
When I came home from my meeting, I decided to do some Web research about how much violence a nurse faces on the job. What I found was truly stunning, although it does make sense in a macabre sort of way. Despite security, hospitals are open 24/7, access through the emergency room door is virtually unrestricted, and wandering in and then making your way to another part of the facility is not the most difficult maneuver on the planet. With nurses often the first-line of defense, so to speak, the patient (or family member) high on something other than life, mentally unhinged or just plain mad at the world is mostly likely to use her as his punching bag du jour.
From CNN: A national survey, conducted by an association that represents emergency room nurses found 86 percent of its members reported being a victim of workplace violence during the prior three years; 19 percent said it happened frequently. The publication Workplace Violence News reports from a national study that two-thirds of emergency-room nurses were considering leaving the emergency department because they were tired of being hit, slapped, thrown against walls and generally knocked around.
It doesn’t just happen in big cities like Boston or New York and it’s not isolated to emergency rooms. Again, from a CNN article: 50 percent of all nurses surveyed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the University of Massachusetts said they had been punched at least once in a two-year period. Some reported being strangled, sexually assaulted or purposely stuck with contaminated needles.
If it can happen in city, rural and suburban hospitals across this country, then it must be happening in places like Schenectady, Albany and Amsterdam.
This isn’t limited to our country either: Pediatric and surgical nurses in Australia reported that during a 12-month period in 2009 and 2010 they were on the receiving end of an average four violent incidents per staff member.
From now on, whether she or he is wearing a purple O.R. shirt and pants or a Garanimals smock and white stretch pants, I’m going to remember what I learned and treat this professional with a little more patience, knowing what she might have to face during the rest of her workday.
Frank J. Ciervo lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.