News & Events

Life after a workplace assault: how one nurse was treated by her employer

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
August 2004 Edition

By Evelyn Bain, M Ed, RN, COHN-S
Associate Director/Coordinator, Health & Safety

Early this spring an MNA member called the Health and Safety Program to ask for support related to court appearances following a workplace assault. Members of the MNA Workplace Violence and Abuse Prevention Task Force are available to talk with victim/survivors of workplace violence. A member of the Task Force talked with this nurse several times and will continue to be available to her.

This nurse went on to describe the assault, which occurred in March 2003. After spending several hours in an emergency room for protective custody and intoxication, a male patient who was being discharged lunged forward and grabbed this nurse between the legs. She struggled to get away, but he would not let go. He kept a strong hold on her as she struggled, even ripping her clothes and causing injuries. Hospital security offi- cers and other emergency department staff came to her aid and forced him to release her. The police were called and arrested the perpetrator on the spot and removed him from the emergency department.

The police came to the hospital later that night and helped this nurse complete a victim assault statement. She said later in the shift she was feeling "OK—shocked and upset, but OK."

Since she was the charge nurse that night, she made out an incident report and an employee accident report and then continued to work five more hours, finishing her shift at 11 p.m. Her supervisor got the reports the next morning.

The nurse also made copies of these reports for her own records, which proved valuable because as events unfolded, the hospital reports were subsequently lost and never located.

This nurse said she was more tortured and tormented by "the stuff that went on afterward" rather than by the assault itself. Mainly, her employer’s denial that the event occurred as described and their overall lack of support for her decision to hold the assailant accountable because he was a patient. The nurse noted the lack of support by inferences that "this is a hotel environment and the patient is a customer, the customer is always right and you are a hospital (hotel) employee." While this was not said to her directly, it was the message she felt she received. The administrative staff inferred that she should not pursue things, just let them go. What she wanted to hear was, "We are sorry you were injured." She wanted them to "own the event and share her outrage that this assault on their employee had occurred." She also wanted them to work to see that the perpetrator was held accountable and not made to feel that he could get away with his outrageous behavior.

Shortly after the assault, the long legal process began. This nurse went to court about seven times, with four or five court appearances requiring people she worked with being summoned to testify. These appearances were for the nurses and the security staff that were on duty the night of the assault and who were witnesses to the event. These co-workers went to court and provided statements describing the events of the assault. The employees who testified on her behalf were informed by their employer that this was not a hospital matter; this was a private matter between the nurse and the assailant.

During the next 16 months the litigation process unfolded. The nurse continued to work her scheduled hours, yet now—after 13 years of exemplary employment and excellent reviews—all her nursing functions were being scrutinized by her employer. She was being watched.

This nurse feels she is a changed person following both the assault itself and her employer’s reaction. She feels she has changed from being confident and self assured in her work, to being hyper-vigilant in all her interactions with patients and visitors. She noted flight or fight reactions and quivers in the pit of her stomach when she is in situations that may result in confrontation or when she asserts her authority as a nurse. She questions herself, "Is this going to go away or is it time to move from emergency nursing?" This nurse did resign her position as evening charge nurse. The reason she gave was, "Primarily because of the lack of support I received with this incident."

And now, with her assailant found guilty, she does not feel victorious. Instead she feels tired and sad. She is tired from the energy that was required to withstand the legal process and sad that she went through the court process feeling so unsupported by her employer. She notes that her employer still conveys the message, although unspoken, that the person who committed these acts, somehow, should not have been made accountable for his actions, because he was a patient. Her comments at the end of our conversation were, "I am not sure what the future holds for me but I know that this incident has impacted my life on every level, forever. Now that it is over, I see that it will always stay with me and because of this I am a different nurse, wife, mother, daughter and grandmother."

Note: The majority of nurses who contact the MNA Health and Safety Program following events of violence comment, "If only someone had said they were sorry this happened, and you did not deserve to be injured like this." Leaving the area of practice where the violence occurred, or leaving nursing altogether, is not an unusual response for nurses who have been victimized by events of workplace violence and/or the indifference of the employers following assaults and violence such as the one described here. This event and the nurses’ reactions were shared here to provide insight into the stress that courageous nurses experience when they go forward to hold perpetrators of workplace violence accountable for their actions.

In the future, if and when you are involved in events such as these, a kind word to the victim along with positive actions to prevent these acts from recurring, are as important to a victim’s well being and recovery as are the outcomes of the legal process.