Bella English

This great-grandmother wants to end ‘the dirty little secret of nursing’

Sheila Wilson feels blessed to have what she considers the best career in the world: nursing. At 73, she has no plans to retire, and is still doing per diem jobs. 09zoBella. 7-9-17
Sheila Wilson feels blessed to have what she considers the best career in the world: nursing. At 73, she has no plans to retire and is still doing per diem jobs.

Sheila Wilson feels blessed to have what she considers the best career in the world: nursing. At 73, she has no plans to retire and is still doing per diem jobs.

But over the decades, the Quincy native, who has worked in hospitals, clinics, and shelters, has witnessed what she calls “the dirty little secret of nursing.” It’s workplace violence against healthcare providers, which studies show has spiked in the past decade.

Wilson, who co-founded Stop Healthcare Violence, a nonproft aimed at providing a safe workplace for providers, has been lobbying the Legislature to strengthen penalties. The pending bill would make Massachusetts the 34th state to increase penalties for assaults on healthcare workers, from misdemeanors to felonies.


“Being punched, bitten, spit upon, groped, jumped on from behind, knocked unconscious, and attacked with weapons are common occurrences for healthcare professionals,” Wilson says.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

She and others, including the Canton-based Massachusetts Nurses Association, will testify at a State House hearing on July 11. They are also supporting legislation to make hospitals and other clinical settings safer through measures such as more security workers, better lighting, and panic buttons.

Massachusetts Nurses Association
A nurse at Leominster's HealthAlliance Hospital displays her bruise after she was assaulted by a patient in January. She suffered a rotator cuff injury that required surgery and was out of work for three months.

According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, healthcare violence accounts for nearly as many injuries as all other industries combined. From 2011 to 2013, healthcare workers suffered 15,000 to 20,000 such injuries each year -- and those were only the ones serious enough to require days off to recover.

“Studies also show that violence in healthcare workplaces is underreported; thus, the problem is considerably larger than the official statistics suggest,” according to a recent OSHA report.

Wilson knows the problem firsthand. The first time, she was a nursing assistant working at Carney Hospital in Dorchester when a patient “hauled off and punched me in the face.”


Why? “Because he could.”

As glib as that may sound, it’s the truth. Hospitals and clinics -- even nursing homes -- are fertile ground for violence. Patients, and their family and friends, aren’t vetted. When an emergency room door opens, anyone can enter.

With a rotating clientele -- some with a history of substance abuse, mental illness, Alzheimer’s disease, and violence -- staffers often don’t know who they’re dealing with. And most nurses are women who may be alone with a patient.

Making matters worse, because of reduced funding for mental health services, OSHA says that more mentally ill patients with violent tendencies are using emergency rooms for treatment.

But what’s most shocking is the culture of accepting violence as part of the job. OSHA again: “Caregivers feel a professional and ethical duty to ‘do no harm’ to patients. Some will put their own safety and health at risk to help a patient. ... Healthcare workers also recognize that many injuries caused by patients are unintentional and are therefore likely to accept them as routine or unavoidable.”


David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, says management has traditionally discouraged workers from filing complaints or police reports. “The attitude is, ‘We don’t want to get involved with this.’ They’ll ask nurses who have been assaulted, ‘When are you getting back on your shift?’ ‘Why aren’t you coming to work?’

“This,” he adds, “is not part of the job.”

Wilson believes workers and managers alike should speak out against violence. “Some are afraid to say anything, because they’re afraid to lose their jobs,” she says, while others believe speaking up is futile. And some psychiatric nurses, she says, want to protect their patients.

Wilson, who has a master’s in public health, will speak to anyone who will listen: health fairs, conferences, lawmakers. It’s both personal and political.

She was in the ER at Carney when EMS brought in a patient who then set his gauze bandages on fire. “Embers fell into my eye, I got severe lacerations, and almost lost my eyesight,” she says.

Wilson has witnessed a nurse punched in the face, causing her to fall into cabinets and sustain back, shoulder, and facial injuries. The nurse suffered posttraumatic stress disorder and eventually left the hospital.

Unlike many colleagues, she brought charges. But the judge gave the man probation: “I know you’d like him to go to jail,” the judge said. “But he didn’t come into the hospital intending to hurt you. You just happened to be in his way.”

One nurse, Wilson says, was backing out of a room -- as nurses are trained to do -- tripped and fell, and the patient got up and kicked her in the face.

One of the two other nurses who co-founded Stop Healthcare Violence with Wilson in 2008 was jumped by a female patient. “It took seven people to get her off,” says Wilson. The nurse was out of work for five months with injuries.

Wilson’s list goes on. A nurse nearly strangled with her own stethoscope. A security guard on the floor being beaten by a patient. X-ray technicians groped. A housekeeper hit in the head. A doctor on grand rounds, after apologizing for being late, assaulted -- for being late.

In 2015, Dr. Michael Davidson, a cardiovascular surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was shot and killed in an exam room by the son of a patient Davidson had treated. And in June, a nurse at Harrington Hospital in Southbridge was stabbed and left in critical condition by a patient who cornered her in a room near the emergency department.

There are as many reasons why healthcare workers should be protected by a law making assaults punishable as felonies as there are assaults themselves. It’s why 33 other states have such laws on the books.

It’s also why reporting such acts, and being supported by management, is critical. Wilson, a great-grandmother, believes her own generation was too passive. “I’m hoping the younger generation of nurses won’t put up with this,” she says.

Schildmeier agrees that increasing the penalty is crucial, but he notes that the penalty comes after the assault. The nurses association is pushing a bill that would require hospitals to devise and implement prevention plans.

“Extra charges are great, but there must be an effort to prevent these assaults from happening in the first place,” he says.

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at