In Albuquerque’s hospitals, the doctors, nurses and paramedics need to know how to block a punch or a bite almost as much as they need to know how to check a pulse or start an IV. On Tuesday, a University of New Mexico Hospital worker was spit on by a patient with Hepatitis C and HIV. Some of the patient’s spit got in her eye, UNM police report. On Monday, another worker was punched in the arm as he dealt with a patient, UNM police report.
Last week, a paramedic was pulled to the ground by her ponytail by a drunken patient, Albuquerque police report. And during the first week of April, a discharged UNM hospital emergency room patient threatened staff and security with a yellow pencil.
Attacks on caregivers come about once a week, officials at local hospitals say. Because they can be so serious, health care workers now have their own assault law. The law, which allows police to charge attackers with felony battery on a health care worker instead of a misdemeanor charge, has been on the books since July. Though it has only been used in Albuquerque about a dozen times – far less than the number of violent incidents at local hospitals – it’s comfort to besieged hospital workers.
“It does boil down to a feeling,” said Mike Chicarelli, director of emergency services at UNM Hospital. “I do think the staff feel that it protects them to an extent, an additional push. They feel safer.”
It was an attack on a female nurse by a female patient in his emergency room in 2006 that led to the new law, of which he said police are becoming more aware. Chicarelli said the attack prompted the nurse and her co-workers to rally the Legislature to pass the law. “It was an attack that could have been serious. Luckily, things turned out very well, but we kind of recognized that,” Chicarelli said.
The patient was not suffering from mental illness and was arrested, but she was not sentenced to an amount of time that nurses felt was appropriate, recalls Nancy Morton, a nursing instructor and the UNM’s College Of Nursing.
The law, she said, makes her and others in the field feel more respected.
“There is a human behind the uniform,” she said. And it’s a human that, at times, is confronted with a person who has just battled with a police officer.
Nurses and staff at UNM hospital and Presbyterian Healthcare Services are trained to talk their way out of intense situations. At Presbyterian centers, staff can access an on-call mental health professional to help determine the best course of action in dealing with an irate patient, said Michael Champion, a staff psychiatrist for the Presbyterian Medical Group. “You have to determine medical or mental illness or when do the police get called,” Champion said.
At UNM hospital, university police are called to an incident at least once a week, UNM police spokesman Lt. Pat Davis said. “The vast majority (of irate patients) are drunk or high and are not going to listen,” Davis said. From July to December 2006, police logged 33 reports of assaults on health care workers, Davis said.
Since January, UNM police have logged 21 assaults on police, Davis said. “The demographics of those people, there’s nothing consistent. It’s a general reflection of the population,” Davis said. “And it’s what health care workers have to encounter on a daily basis.”