A few years ago, in separate surgeries, I had both knees and hips replaced. As a result I spent quite a bit of time getting acquainted with how hospitals function day to day. I saw some things that surprised me, other things that impressed me and still other things that disappointed me.
I was most surprised by the sheer number of people who passed through my room, including physicians, nurses, orderlies and even some of the executive staff. I was never left alone for very long for both day and night.
What impressed me the most was the thoroughness and dedication of everybody who tended to me. They seemed to be always there to make sure I was comfortable and healing properly.
The biggest disappointment was the noise level at night in the halls. Although my door was closed most of the time, the number of people passing through the halls and the giggling and laughing that went on kept me awake for much of the time that I was in the hospital.
Overall, however, I had a good experience being a patient and told any number of people after I was released from the hospital how impressed I was with the care I received there, especially by the nurses. Those RNs work long shifts punctuated by hard, physical work as well as meticulous clinical work and documentation.
So when I recently came across a National Public Radio story about some debilitating injuries nurses sustain on the job I was more than interested in finding out what was going on. One nurse, Terry Cawthorn, who has worked at Mission Hospital in Asheville. N.C., for more than 20 years, lost her job after lawyers for the hospital argued she had injured her back lifting a casserole out of her oven at home, not at work as she had claimed. This despite the fact that the medical staff at Mission had corroborated Cawthorn’s story that she hurt her back moving a large patient from a gurney to a hospital bed.
The case went to court because North Carolina law requires companies to cover employees’ medical bills when they are injured on the job. Companies are also required to pay workers’ compensation to support injured employees while they are missing work and paychecks.
According to testimony, Cawthorn, on the afternoon of her 45th birthday, was asked to help to move a large female patient who had just had a C-section from a gurney into bed. This is a routine task nurses all over the country are asked to perform on a daily basis. Later in the day Cawthorn could hardly walk but soldiered on. A week later she re-injured her back, and soon there after aggravated it a third time. Nine months later she found herself a patient in the hospital where she worked. She underwent a lumbar inter body fusion, an operation in which a surgeon implanted a bone graft on her spine using a metal framework.
As she was recuperating in her hospital bed two days after back surgery, she said a hospital representative walked into her room and handed her a document informing her she was terminated, as she was no longer fit for work.
Nurses have been injuring their backs by moving patients for decades. What is new is that something can be done about it, and yet many hospitals seem to be unwilling to buy the necessary equipment or take time to train people. Lift-assist technology would stem the tide of nursing injuries. Some hospitals have purchased a limited amount of equipment and done minimal training, but most have not taken an aggressive approach to protecting their nurses because they are preoccupied with other challenges, such as hospital infections.
James Collins, a research manager in the Division of Safety Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, told NPR that safety and health officers in hospitals have told him of trying to persuade their bosses to launch major campaigns to prevent nurses from getting hurt lifting patients, but their pitch goes nowhere.
So the problem of nursing injuries continues because unenlightened hospital executives refuse to do something to protect the very people who in any hospital are the ones who provide the most care to patients. I believe that the topic of nursing injuries should be one of the highest priorities any hospital executive should explore immediately and rectify with dispatch. It is simply the right thing to do.