Early in Mary Heye’s career as a nurse, an angry patient left the emergency room, returned with a gun, and shot and killed a male nurse.
In a long career in San Antonio and elsewhere, Heye has encountered many other incidents of violent verbal or even physical abuse against health care workers. The problem, on the increase for years, has risen sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic for these “health care heroes” — doctors, nurses, lab techs and other medical workers.
Violence against health care workers, particularly nurses, was getting worse long before the pandemic. In the past 10 years, some national studies have shown a 110% spike in violent injuries to medical workers. Statistics show 50% to a whopping 70% of violent assaults on the job are suffered by health care workers, from home-health aides to physicians. Many more go unreported.
Windcrest Councilwoman Cindy Strzelecki, a veteran nurse, health care educator and administrator, has seen it happen countless times. As chair of the Texas Nurses Association Government Affairs Committee, she has worked for legislative changes to improve the situation. She has seen some progress – for instance, up until a few years ago, Texas law made it a felony for someone being rushed to the hospital to assault police officers, firemen or other first responders.
“But when they crossed the doorstep to the emergency room, if they assaulted a nurse or doctor, it was a misdemeanor,” Strzelecki told me.
The law finally changed; testimony included a nurse whose finger was bitten off.
The abuse happens in all areas where patients and their families are coping with life and death. Because nurses interact the most with them, they often take the brunt.
Doctors are not exempt. Recently, veteran San Antonio physician Carl Blond told me he was able to resolve a potentially dangerous situation when a man angry about his elderly mother’s condition confronted another physician.
“The doctor was tiny – maybe 100 pounds, and the guy was about 250 pounds, and he was yelling at her and threatening to hurt her. She was terrified,” Blond said. “It happens. It has a lot to do with trust. People make quick judgments, and when doctors or nurses are wearing masks, that can make it worse. A lot of families were angry that they couldn’t see their family members in the hospital during the pandemic. And these days with managed care, some people feel we are trying to limit care instead of help.”
In the last Legislative session, House Bill 326 would have required health care organizations to develop clear policies to protect all employees from workplace violence. The bill passed the House but did not get out of committee in the Senate.
Another bill that faced the same fate would have made it presumptive that health care workers who developed COVID-19 would be covered by workers compensation, the way first responders are. Currently, many health care workers who get COVID face long struggles trying to prove where they contracted the disease.
“It’s frustrating,” Strzelecki said. “There’s all this talk about ‘health care heroes’ but sometimes I wonder how our society has gotten to the point where health care providers — nurses, nursing assistants, techs, all of us — have to deal with this.”
New laws may help, if they’re passed. But maybe awareness of the stresses nurses and others face can make us more understanding, and spur employers to do more to protect the men and women on the front lines of life and death.