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Assaulting health care workers about to draw steeper fines in TN

3:05 PM, Jun 4, 2013   |    comments
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By Tom Wilemon / The Tennessean

Even though Pat Morrow had been cursed at, shoved around and punched in the stomach during her career as a nurse, the patient who tried to kill her caught her by surprise.

Wielding an ink pen, he grabbed her from behind, stabbing her in the neck and chest until the makeshift weapon broke. The stab wounds missed vital organs and major arteries, but the emotional scars remain fresh. Nine years later, Morrow still cries when she talks about the incident.

Soon nurses and other health care providers will have some of the same legal protections against violence afforded to police officers. Gov. Bill Haslam is scheduled to sign into law today a bill that sets identical fines against people convicted of assaults. It takes effect July 1.

"The law acknowledges our professional role," said Jill Kinch, president of the Tennessee Nurses Association. "In a way there is a symbolic piece to this. The community is saying, 'We value you as nurses and we are going to include you with this other profession that has this level of penalty for assault, which is the police officer.' "

The fines are not symbolic. People convicted of assaulting health care workers will have to pay up to $5,000 - double the normal fine.

Health care is a dangerous profession. The incidence rate for violence against health care workers is more than triple the rate for all of private industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From 2003 to 2009, eight nurses were killed on the job in the United States, and 2,050 nonfatal assaults occurred.

The attack on Morrow happened in 2004 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and resulted in the hospital taking more safety precautions, such as storing away sharp objects and switching from metal silverware to plastic knives and forks.

Morrow was off work for seven months, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from the attack.

"I hope the the law brings awareness," she said. "I don't think people in general realize what nurses put up with and go through."

At the time of her attack, she worked in the trauma center - a place where patients may have violent tendencies. But upset family members also can be guilty of attacks, shoving or slapping nurses at community hospitals.

Greater security for nurses

Jan Moser, director for women's services and pediatrics at Sumner Regional Medical Center, said the new law will give nurses a sense of greater security.

"These kinds of situations often scare younger nurses away from the profession," Moser said. "They don't want to come into a workplace where they fear what's going to happen, so a law that protects health care workers will provide more comfort and security for nurses entering the profession by, hopefully, decreasing aggressive behavior in the hospital. It's a good law."

The law applies to intentional attacks, so a patient with Alzheimer's disease or some other mentally incapacitating condition would not fall under the penalty. Morrow's patient was fully lucid. He was wanted in another state on a criminal warrant, though she didn't know it at the time.

Phil Newman is another nurse who was the victim of an assault. He suffered a concussion, nerve damage in his neck and a knee injury that required surgery about a year and a half ago when a patient with delirium made weapons out of IV poles and other equipment.

"I want to believe he was a good man - that he didn't have the intent of singling me out to hurt me - but when somebody looks you in the eyes and says, 'I'm going to kill you,' and proceeds to do that kind of stuff, it leaves a very lasting impression and you take it personally," he said.

Newman is still trying to resolve workers' compensation claims with the Middle Tennessee hospital where he worked. He declined to say where the incident happened because of the open compensation case.

He has not been able to go back to work.

"It really does give me the willies to set foot in a hospital, when it was basically my second home - my life for over 30 years," Newman said.

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