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A shocking history of workplace violence


Paula Doucet says she’s has been spat on by a patient.

Grabbed roughly, and struck.

Called every name in the book.

That’s why the former emergency room nurse, now president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, is leading a charge to have the provincial government bolster anti-violence legislation for nurses and other front-line healthcare professionals.

The union wants Post-Secondary Training, Education and Labour Minister Donald Arseneault to beef up the Occupational Health and Safety Act – specifically by introducing new language that directly addresses workplace violence and which outlines employers’ responsibilities.

New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that doesn’t have this language already enshrined in law.

On Tuesday, Arseneault’s department told The Daily Gleaner his department has studied the legislation other provinces use and that the government is currently reviewing a policy paper. The Gleaner asked the government for comment on this story on Wednesday afternoon, but didn’t get a response.

Doucet, meanwhile, is tired of waiting for the government’s review. She wants action now.

During 13 years in the emergency room at the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst, Doucet says she’s seen many frightening incidents. Some, she says, have made her fear for her safety.

“At the time, you think, ‘It’s part of the job.’ You’re providing care to somebody. But at the end of the day, that isn’t part of my job. I don’t deserve to be spit on, or screamed at,”Doucet said. “These things play on your mind. You don’t forget those shifts.”

What kinds of things do nurses hear? What names are they called?

“I can’t – I won’t say the words. It’s downright vulgar. You understand, as a nurse, that these people are in vulnerable situations. But that doesn’t give them the right to go off on you, verbally or physically,”she said.

Often, Doucet said, nurses internalize incidents of abuse and do a lot of soul-searching when their work day is over.

“We think,‘What could we have done differently? Did I do my job properly? Why me?’ Well, we shouldn’t be like that. We’re registered nurses. We’re professionals. We’re there to help. But when you’re stripped down and you’re verbally assaulted, shift after shift or day after day, you do start to second-guess yourself,”she said.

“I’m trying to tell my members that we need to shift our way of thinking. It’s not part of our job to accept that.”

There are memories Doucet will never forget, like the time a male patient threatened her, and later her colleagues.

She said he spat at her. That he was verbally abusive and tried to strike her, and her co-workers, when they came to her aid.

“I remember the cuss words, the spitting. My colleagues heard it. They knew I was alone with him. Within minutes, I had three or four other colleagues there, more or less showing him, ‘She isn’t alone. There are other people here,’”she said.

She says she’s also been physically abused.

“I was hit when I worked on a medical floor probably 16 or 17 years ago. It wasn’t to the point where I couldn’t work,”she said.

“I had a patient grab me. In that situation, it was somebody that cognitively didn’t realize what he was doing. I tried to get him to go back to his room. He was down a hallway. Once he grabbed me, there were other staff around. They were able to help defuse that situation.”

Often, there’s little time to process these kinds of incidents, she said.

“You take a few minutes, sometimes, if you can. Sometimes, you can’t. It’s only at the end of your shift. You put it on the backburner most times because you have other patients you have to care for. They need you.”

Mostly, Doucet said, nurses lean on each other for support.

“After an incident, we might be in the staff room. We’ll ask each other, ‘What just happened out there? Are you OK?’ We’re good at rallying around each other,”she said.

There are log-jams that exist throughout New Brunswick’s health-care system, and which contribute to the tensions in provincial hospitals. When patients can’t see their family practitioner in a timely manner, they’re forced to turn to the ER. The system struggles to manage the demand, she said.

“I think we are in the perfect storm. We hear time and time again that many New Brunswickers don’t have a family physician, or access to a primary care practitioner. We know there are nurse practitioners out there who aren’t working as nurse practitioners. We need to understand if we have the right services in the right communities, like after-hours clinics, health clinics, health promotion services,” Doucet said.

“The frustration level about the emergency room comes down to this: What might be an emergency to you, may not be an emergency when you’re [triaged].”

Until these pressures are relieved, nurses, and other frontline health professionals, will face serious risks. And that’s why Doucet won’t leave this issue alone.

“This is not going away for us,” she said.

“This is a priority. The members have solidified that again this week. They want this fixed. Now.”

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