By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post
Sheena Alston gets quiet when she talks about the roughest parts of her job in one of the most dangerous professions in America.
It wasn’t the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, when she helped search for victims at the Pentagon, where the plane parts were still smoldering.
Or how she and her colleagues are routinely knifed, punched, bitten, beaten and spat upon.
Or how they’ve been sent into deadly situations without the necessary protective gear.
Alston isn’t a police officer or prison guard, although those would be good guesses.
No; she’s a nurse.
And for Alston, who works at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, one of the biggest gut punches of the job is not what she faces, but what the patients she cares for do. Like the young mother who died of covid-19 in the past year.
“Her last words were, um, to tell her kids that she loved them,” she said haltingly, overcome with emotion. Alston herself has five children. “She was young. They were young.”
Nursing has always been a demanding profession, “emotionally, physically and mentally,” she said. And even before the pandemic, nurses faced dangers in their workplace.
“Working in the emergency department, we never know what’s going to walk into the door,” Alston said. “We don’t know if it’s scabies, you know, we don’t know if it’s bed bugs that we can take home to our families, we don’t know if it’s coronavirus or patients who are under the influence of some substance and pretty violent.”
In Indiana last month, a nurse was violently shoved and injured by a patient who was trying to escape the hospital.
A nurse in Boston was punched, hit with a chair and bitten by a violent patient in October. It was the second such attack the nurse endured last year.
“We’re just human punching bags,” the nurse, Jesse Telford, told a Boston TV station.
And now, as the front-line field in the pandemic, nursing is also quickly becoming one of the most fatal professions, too.
While the pandemic began with nightly cheers for health-care workers and songs and signs and bang-on-the-pots-and-pans odes to nurses, more than a year later, their profession — and their well-being — is in peril.
Health-care workers are violently assaulted on the job at about five times the rate of workers overall, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“It’s heartbreaking to be doing your very, very best under extremely poor conditions,” said California nurse and union president Deborah Burger. “And then being treated as if we are expendable.”
Nursing is a field rarely associated with and acknowledged for its daily dose of violence. Its unions have been pushing for years to enact legislation that forces hospitals to make the workplace safer for them.
A bill that requires hospitals to have violence-prevention plans in place was finally passed in the U.S. House last week.
But the past year has brought new horrors to the profession, with at least 3,000 health-care workers — many of them nurses — killed by covid-19.
One of them was Noel Sinkiat, 64, a veteran nurse at Howard University Hospital who died of covid-19 last year.
“It was so fast,” his wife, Lourdes Gerardo, told The Washington Post, after she saw him briefly, from behind a protective suit. He was supposed to retire in December.
Meanwhile, there’s an escalating retirement rate in the field that forecasts a massive shortage of nurses ahead.
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 3 out of 10 health-care professionals are considering leaving their professions — the ones they studied years for — because of the pandemic.
Alston, 46, said she’s a die-hard and isn’t planning to retire anytime soon. But she sees the burnout and early retirements all around her. Especially when the pandemic highlighted the daily struggle in her field. Her union fought again and again in the early days of the pandemic for better protective equipment, which she had to recycle at first.
Burger said it’s still happening.
“Take any country, look at any photograph, anyone, even in the poorest one, and you’ll see full body suits, zipper, covered hoods,” said Burger, president of National Nurses United, which has about 150,000 members. “We’re still having nurses reuse face masks and wear trash bags. … We still have nurses that are having to deal with reusing PPE; this is now a year later.”
Over the past year, nurses who haven’t felt their protective gear was ample at work have lived separately from their families, some in RVs, Burger said.
“If firefighters don’t have the safety equipment they need, they don’t go into the fire,” she said. “Nurses are still going in, without all the proper equipment.”
The fight for safer working conditions has created a surge of interest in organizing. Burger said she’s helping organize nurses in Maine and Chicago. They’ve also unionized in North Carolina, Philadelphia and Albany since the pandemic began, according to a story by Kaiser Health News.
It’s been a hell of a year to be a nurse, Alston said. But when she was 10 years old and watched her grandmother die, with a nurse lovingly by her side the entire time, she knew that’s what she was going to do her whole life.
“It feels like it’s what I’m supposed to do,” she said. “I don’t take it lightly; we have people’s lives in our hands. That’s how most of us feel.”
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.