Arlene Tedjo’s passion for nursing was already dwindling in a short-staffed emergency room in British Columbia, but when a patient kicked her and told her to go back to her own country, she was forced to take a break from her job.
Tedjo, 31, said she felt targeted by a patient in the waiting room of Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, after he’d been assessed on a busy Saturday in August.
“He kicked me and tried to trip me. And he admitted it in front of a waiting room full of people,” said Tedjo, who was born in Toronto and is of Chinese-Indonesian descent.
RCMP are still investigating the assault.
Tedjo said she’s discouraged by a marked increase in aggression from patients during her eight years of nursing, especially during the pandemic.
“I didn’t go to university and get this education to go to work, then come home feeling this way, having been physically hurt and emotionally and mentally drained,” said Tedjo.
She took three days off after the assault, all the while feeling guilty about leaving her colleagues without another pair of helping hands, she said.
Tedjo is hoping a new program announced Monday by the British Columbia government to help prevent violence against health-care workers at 26 emergency rooms and mental health units across the province will send a positive message to staff and the public.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said 320 protection service officers and 14 people tasked with preventing violence will be hired to enhance the safety of staff and patients, with an aim to reduce injury rates and to retain employees.
He said that since the summer of 2021, over 4,400 reported incidents of violence have occurred, resulting in about $7 million in employee time-loss claims, but the effect on workers can’t be quantified in dollars.
The anti-violence strategy will be developed by a new organization called Switch BC, which stands for Safety, Well-being, Innovation, Training and Collaboration in Health Care. It involves doctors, employers and three unions, including those representing nurses, medical lab techs, occupational therapists and cleaning and dietary staff.
The BC Nurses Union has been calling for better protective measures for its members for at least 30 years.
Its president, Aman Grewal, said nurses are punched, kicked, grabbed and verbally and sexually harassed at increasingly dangerous workplaces, where injury rates are under-reported and higher than those affecting first responders.
Grewal said patients have been lashing out at nurses for everything from long wait-lists to cancelled surgeries.
One case that stands out for her at Abbotsford Regional Hospital in 2019 involved a nurse who was hit in the face with a dumbbell, shattering her jaw and requiring multiple surgeries, she said.
A lack of security has meant nurses are restraining patients and putting themselves in harm’s way, said Grewal, who said she has experienced plenty of violence and threats during her 35 years as a nurse.
In one instance, Grewal said she was giving medication to a psychiatrist patient who threatened to “rearrange a security officer’s face so that even his mother wouldn’t recognize him.”
“The tone and look on his face really put a fear in me,” Grewal said.
She saw that patient in the hospital cafeteria and after that she encountered him while he was entering the building where she lived, she said.
“Within a month, I had moved out. It was just traumatizing me so much,” she said, adding nurses have tended to normalize violence as part of the job while health authorities have failed to take adequate action.
“I’ve been kicked in the chest, and sometimes it’s not under the control of the person that’s in a pain crisis, and they’re just not themselves. There are other times when you have people that spit and curse at you all the time.”
A rising number of patients struggling with addiction are also exhibiting violent behaviour, as are homeless people who enter hospitals for a place to stay and refuse to leave, she said.
Grewal said she’s hoping the new model that enhances current safety protocols will make a big difference and that the program could be extended to health-care sites across the province.
However, it will not apply to long-term care aides and support workers at facilities that are not operated by health authorities.
Saleema Dhalla, CEO of SafeCare BC, a non-profit group that develops injury prevention training programs for the sector, said all health-care workers deserve to benefit from improved safety protocols, even if the violence stems from patients with dementia.
“The causes may be different than what you see in acute care, but there were over 270 reported incidents of violence in long-term care in 2021,” she said.
—Camille Bains, The Canadian Press