From getting kicked, punched, and threatened - it’s all in a day’s work for this emergency department nurse.
“I’m going to shoot you, and shoot your family.”
As an associate nurse unit manager, that’s one of the regular threats I hear from patients who are under the influence of methamphetamines.
I’m a tall guy, fairly heavy set, but as a father these things weigh heavily on me as I lie awake at night wondering if the patient would ever follow through with their threat.
I work in the emergency department of a large hospital and in my role, I work in partnership with other senior staff to help make the department run as smoothly as possible. I can be working on the resuscitation team, or in triage, but it’s always in a trauma based role.
Unfortunately the threats I get are not even half of it. The violence drug-affected patients can inflict is much, much worse and it happens pretty much every day. I’ve seen colleagues punched, kicked, thrown to the ground. We’ve had wheelchairs thrown across the room, windows smashed, patients pull out knives and other weapons they’ve concealed on them. In the emergency department anything can become a weapon.
I remember once a patient came in high on meth. They started lashing out. Unfortunately a co-worker of mine, working in the next cubicle, got grabbed from behind and knocked out cold. It was chaos as we tried to restrain the patient and treat our colleague and friend, who lay motionless on the ground.
Every time it happened it felt like I had post-traumatic stress disorder and I struggled to deal with it.
I’ve been lucky that in my 25 years on the job I’ve not had a single broken bone. I’ve dealt with my fair share of injuries and have had to deal with countless blood exposures (a patient’s blood getting into mine). What usually happens is a patient will come in covered in blood from a drug related injury, as I grapple with them and try to restrain them I get cut and scratched, then their blood gets into mine, I’ve also had them spit blood into my eye.
For a while these types of injuries really traumatized me. I’d get the all clear that I didn’t have HIV or another illness and then I’d get another blood exposure the very next day. Every time it happened it felt like I had post-traumatic stress disorder and I struggled to deal with it. I couldn’t sleep. I became hypervigilant almost to the point of paranoia.
Night shifts are always the hardest. More often than not I find myself hoping that I’ll injure myself before a night shift so that I don’t have to go in to work.
I know I have demons – anyone who works in this field will tell you the same. That’s part and parcel of the job. There are particular cases that will haunt me forever. I’ll never discuss them with anyone but as I’m driving along, or playing with my kids, something will jog my memory and I’ll remember.
I got into this job because I wanted to help people. I believe when it comes to health you can really make an impact on someone’s life – you can be there on their worst day and really make a difference.
But it’s time for me to get out. I started out in the job very career focused and passionate about what I do. But now I’m stuck in the daily grind, just trying to get through each day. I’ve seen meth use rise and so as a result violence in our hospital has risen. I’m burnt out and fed up with the system.
As a society we haven’t been able to tackle the problem of meth use. As the number of people taking it seems to rise I’ve witnessed a total lack of knowledge of what to do with them. We’re all overwhelmed - the police, the mental health services, and us.
I’m treating patients who have obvious mental health issues combined with their drug use and I’m patching them up and sending them back out onto the street.
From talking to the police who come into my department I know our court system is failing us. The suppliers of these drugs, in my view, usually get a slap on the wrist and then they too are let loose back on the streets. If we can’t stop it at the source what hope do we have of helping those who are addicted?
Unfortunately I know that day is probably a long way away, and I don’t have all the answers for this – I wish I did.