During a recent tour of the emergency room and psychiatric assessment unit at Vancouver General Hospital, I asked a young nurse on shift why she carried her personal cell phone in her back pocket.
Her answer was simple. "My only escape in case of a violent incident is to lock myself up in this small medication room – and there's no phone in there. This is my lifeline to help," she explained as she held up her phone.
Looking around the emergency room at the largest hospital in the province, it's easy to understand why this nurse would decide to advocate for herself in a way that could one day save her life. The facility was packed with agitated patients who were languishing in the ER's front hallway, blocking an exit door. I was told the treatment room, which had 11 spots in play that day, routinely has 40 to 50 patients waiting for care at any given time. Recently, two violent patients were removed from this area by security on the same day.
Yet, despite all this, nurses continue to provide care in a setting that lacks any attention to their safety and security should something go wrong.
VGH nurses, especially those who work in the seclusion rooms in the psychiatric assessment unit, don't wear personal protective devices, and have no way to call for help if they find themselves in a violent or dangerous situation. If a Code White is called in a different area of the hospital, the security personnel, limited in number at the best of times, is pulled away, leaving staff and patients exposed and vulnerable.
One might hope that the province's largest health care facility would be a poster child for safety and security for patients and staff. But the reality is far from that – and VGH isn't alone. I'm seeing dangerous situations at worksites both big and small in communities around the province. For example, I was invited to Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops not too long ago and heard from nurses there who have very similar concerns for their safety.
Since the launch of BCNU's violence prevention campaign in March, I have talked to dozens of nurses, all victims of recent attacks. They have received death threats, been punched, placed in lockdowns and watched helplessly as their departments were torn apart by irate patients. And yet it continues.
The fundamental fact remains: nurses deserve a safe workplace. Change can happen, but it will take all of us working together to change the culture, the security and the legislation that impacts safety for nurses.
Back at VGH, I asked a nurse working in the seclusion rooms in the PAU what she thought of our new television commercial on the need for violence prevention. She was quiet for a time, reflecting on her own experiences, and then she said, "It's just so real."
I feel strongly that it's time for nurses to advocate for each other, our patients and our communities. This is what we do. We lead the way to better health care for all, and we need to count on each other for support and strength as we move towards this goal and end violence against nurses.
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