Nurses and community members gather Saturday as nurse Valerie Whorton speaks about the need for safer staffing standards in light of increasing patient loads at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett during a vigil at Drew Nielsen Neighborhood Park in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Nurses and community members gather Saturday as nurse Valerie Whorton speaks about the need for safer staffing standards in light of increasing patient loads at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett during a vigil at Drew Nielsen Neighborhood Park in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘We are drowning’: At vigil, Providence’s Everett nurses mourn mission

Elected officials joined nurses Saturday demanding relief from understaffing. A state Senate bill aims to help.

EVERETT — Nurses and elected officials gathered Saturday in a candlelight vigil to advocate for safe staffing standards in light of increasing patient loads and rapidly rising burnout.

About 60 nurses and supporters took part in the vigil Saturday night at Drew Nielsen Neighborhood Park. The park is just two blocks from Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, where most of the nurses in attendance work.

Providence nurses have reported drastic rises in workloads since the beginning of the pandemic, attributed mainly to understaffing.

Several Providence nurses have testified before lawmakers in Olympia during this year’s legislative session to advocate for laws mandating safe staffing standards, often known as nurse-patient ratios, that they said would protect workplace safety and ensure quality patient care.

In recent weeks, state senators held hearings on a bill that would have the Department of Labor and Industries set ratios for hospitals statewide. On Friday, lawmakers introduced a substitute bill that would place the task of setting staffing standards on hospitals themselves.

Under the new bill, L&I would work with the state Department of Health to create a model staffing plan, which individual hospitals would then adapt to their specific institution. The state still could enforce hospitals’ compliance with those plans.

At Saturday’s vigil, attendees thanked state Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, for her work in getting the bill through the state Senate’s Ways and Means committee. The bill will now go before the full chamber for approval, Robinson said at the vigil. She said she feels there’s “a pretty good chance” the bill will make it through both legislative chambers.

Nurses took turns stepping up to the park’s gazebo to share stories of unsustainable working conditions, overwhelming exhaustion at the end of each day and a deep sense of grief for the loss of the parts of their work they once loved. Nearly all of them expressed a feeling of drowning.

Julie Bynum, a nurse in the float pool at Providence, said she has worked in nearly every department in the hospital over her 16 years there. In years past, Bynum said she would have four patients per day to care for on average. Now, she sees six to eight.

She said she misses having the time to attend more personally to her patients, and feels “depleted” each day knowing she isn’t able to do all she can.

“I miss doing special things for my patients, taking the time to help them wash their face or brush their teeth, things that help them feel human and dignified despite their sickness,” Bynum said. “Now I only run between putting out fires and do my best to keep them alive. We are drowning.”

Dana Robison, a labor and delivery nurse, described having to postpone patients’ deliveries for two or three weeks past their scheduled due dates due to lack of staff. She said she and her coworkers feel the dire circumstances are robbing patients of human connection during such a vulnerable and important time in their lives.

“When you come to a hospital for whatever reason, you want to be seen by someone who treats you as a human being,” Robison said. “I feel like this vigil is ultimately mourning the sense of loss we all feel for that part of our mission.”

Providence leadership hasn’t disputed the staffing issues, but has pushed back against the new standards proposed in Olympia.

“In Snohomish County, we are severely under-bedded for both acute care and post-acute care,” Michelle Lundstrom, chief nursing officer at Providence in Everett, said earlier this month. “And if we were to implement this bill tomorrow, with the workforce that we have today, we would have to close even more beds. What that does for our patients — it reduces access to care.”

Several local elected officials were at the vigil to express their support for nursing staff, including Everett City Council members Paula Rhyne, Mary Fosse and Liz Vogeli and Snohomish County Council member Megan Dunn.

Fosse, who also is a state representative, thanked Providence nurses for bringing staffing issues to the forefront, saying she had herself experienced the side effects of understaffing when her son was born six years ago.

“It was not the nurses’ fault, and you know that,” Fosse said. “It is not their fault they are put in impossible circumstances.”

Several nurses at the vigil said they had worked for Providence units that have since been closed, permanently or temporarily, due to lack of staff. Melissa Parker, a former staffer in the now-defunct hospice care unit, said she was offered a position at another area hospital paying $12 more per hour than she made at Providence.

Tearfully, she pointed to the tower of Providence’s Colby Campus, visible from the park.

“We’re sorry we aren’t here for you anymore,” she said.

“I would never come to this hospital right now, and I tell my friends and family to go anywhere else if they can,” Parker said. “And it isn’t because I don’t trust you. It’s because I know how much you have to bear already.”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; riley.haun@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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