News & Events

In her own words: How ER assault has changed RN Charlene Richardson’s life, work

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
April 2005 Edition

By Charlene Richardson, RN

RN Charlene Richardson at an MNA workshop on violence held last October listens to keynote speaker District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.

Since the story of my March 2003 indecent assault was published in The Salem News, I have been overwhelmed by the public response and the questions I have been asked in regards to this incident. Most people are quick to say they are impressed with the article, yet wondered after reading it how this incident has impacted me and affected my life both personally and professionally.

Since then, I have taken extensive time to think about how to even begin to answer these complex and difficult questions. Most times I find myself unable to find the words to describe the turmoil this incident has caused in my life and the impact it has had on me. In searching for the right words, I have been told by my closest friends and support systems to "search my soul" and the words will follow. While trying to follow this advice I came to the realization that an incident of this magnitude is more traumatizing than any words could ever express. I have also come to the realization that such an experience can rob you of your soul.

I became a nurse to help people and working as an ED nurse was always a dream for me. For nearly 12 years I functioned in this role and although ED nursing is a stressful career, I welcomed each new day and enjoyed the challenge that came with the profession. As ED nurses we must be skilled and ready for anything to happen in a moment’s notice.

Job includes violent patients

Unfortunately our job includes taking care of violent patients; those who sometimes assault. There are people who present to the ED for legitimate help with their illnesses and I have always felt more than up to the task in those circumstances. However, many people present to the ED with the primary intention to be disruptive and maybe even violent to the ED staff and other patients or visitors. With this in mind, nurses are often put in a situation of being on the "front line" without the adequate support and resources to keep us safe.

My incident has been completely life altering. I no longer work in the ED, something that was always my dream and that I dearly loved. And it has left my husband married to a completely different person, one who he describes as "not being a whole person anymore." This is emotionally distressing because I know he is right. I have feelings about this incident that I am unable to convey, even to him. How do you tell the most important person in your life that you feel destroyed by one 90-second violent incident? It is especially hard since he works in law enforcement and prides himself on putting such criminals away where they belong. I guess the bottom line is that admitting to my peers how deeply this episode hurt me—more deeply than I ever thought I could hurt—was more than I could bear. Perhaps admitting this to my peers was so hard because I was their leader for so long. However, even leaders bleed when cut.

Since this incident I have to kick-start myself daily where previously I was a generally happy and energetic person. I fight every day to find the "pre-incident me" as I continue in my multiple roles as nurse, wife, mother, daughter, grandmother, and friend. It is grueling to rise each day and look in the mirror only to see myself as someone’s victim. Friendships become altered due to lack of understanding of a normal post-traumatic response. An incident like this is haunting and causes sleepless nights, restlessness, and generalized feelings of insecurity in all aspects of life. Life stays disrupted long after the bruises are gone …and the scars last forever. There is no longer any sense or feeling of security or safety.

Incident opened my eyes

This incident has opened my eyes on many issues and given me a better understanding of certain things. I now completely understand why sexual assault victims refuse to move forward with prosecution of their assailant. The legal process is long and exhausting and with that comes the judgment of many and lack of understanding due to ignorance of the situation. I have yet to understand the present mentality that suggests it is reasonable for nurses to be abused in any way or form by patients or visitors since we are in this job to help them. This present mentality insinuates that if this occurs while we are on the job "it is OK" because the patient is a "customer" and that our choice of occupation makes us second class citizens.

I rise daily to ask myself these same questions: How did this whole incident become about anything else except me being a victim to a brutal felony crime? How can I be judged by some who actually believe what happened to me was OK because of my choice of occupation?

No support or counseling

I would love to say my employer was one who took this issue seriously and the necessary steps to provide me with the professional support and compassionate care that victims of such trauma deserve, but my employer didn’t do that. Instead, just the opposite occurred. I was never provided support or counseling, and no one ever even said "we’re sorry this happened to you." When I finally decided to share my story through activities sponsored by the MNA and in the media, I was made to feel intimidated by my employer and asked to sign a document pledging me to remain silent. I was made to feel as if I had done something wrong and that I was making things worse by trying to protect myself and other nurses in my department.

This incident has also opened my eyes to the reality of normal post-traumatic response and the effect that an inadequate response can have on the victim. I now realize without the proper support systems in place, a victim’s recovery from an incident can be prolonged. Luckily, I have special friends I have been able to lean on to support me during this most difficult time.

Now, I am speaking out to let other nurses know that it hurts intensely when a victim of violence does not receive the support needed after such a critical incident. Every word said to the victim post-incident is critical since any negative comment will reintroduce trauma and re-victimize the victim. Most days, just when I think I have cried my last tears over this issue, I am surprised at how I become re-victimized. The pain is as fresh as it was immediately following the incident.
In my case an ounce of compassion would have gone a long way. Support of a co-worker is crucial post-incident. It can make or break the victim.

This is written in hopes of saving any nurse from ever having to endure such a deplorable incident. And if they do suffer workplace violence, it is my hope to help ensure the victim is treated with the compassion and respect so rightfully deserved. All nurses need to reach out to and support their colleagues who are victims of assault.

MNA legislation must pass

The MNA has filed legislation to make it mandatory that every hospital have a plan in place to prevent workplace violence from occurring, to educate all employees about the issue, and to offer a system of support and counseling for those who are impacted by workplace violence. We need to make sure this law is passed.

Fortunately, I know in the grand scheme of things I have won and the commonwealth doesn’t share the opinion that I am a second class citizen because of my occupation. Furthermore, my assailant received the maximum penalty allowed in this state. Justice prevails and so does the truth. Yet sometimes the right path isn’t always the easy path and as tough as this has been for me I can look into the mirror and see myself with a free conscience. So the moral of the story is, sometimes it’s just about doing the right thing.