Nursing in the time of COVID: ‘The hostility and violence in the workplace is unbelievable’

‘I love the art of nursing. But the odds are so stacked against me.’

Stock photo/the subject of this story, who is not pictured above, has asked to remain anonymous. (Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels)

Author’s note: This series involves stories told by our readers, week by week. Today’s is shared by Melissa, which is not her real name, but we’re keeping her identity concealed for privacy reasons.

You might have heard that working in the medical profession over the past two or so years has been grueling, in this ongoing age of COVID-19. But how? In what ways? We’re going to tell you. To contribute your own experience, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this article and fill out the form.

The problems the nursing industry is experiencing lately aren’t new issues, said Melissa, 41, who’s in Roanoke, Virginia.

“The pandemic has brought it all to the forefront, because people (were) so sick, and (nurses were) emotionally burned out,” Melissa said. “But it has become even more hostile.

“The hostility and violence in the workplace is unbelievable.”

Melissa worked as a medical assistant first, and then transitioned to nursing. She’s now been a nurse for nearly four years. Her parents are both nurses, as well, and Melissa rattled off a whole slew of other relatives who come from, or who are still in, the medical profession. You could say health care runs in Melissa’s family.

Melissa is doing a nursing contract now, but has also worked in correctional nursing, and been on the managerial side of things.

“Even with point-of-care testing, people will come in, and if you can’t get them in, they’d berate me, curse at me or threaten me,” said Melissa, on the topic of patient hostility. “I’ve been scared for my own personal safety.”

This sort of attitude doesn’t discriminate, either. The anger is directed at veteran nurses who’ve been in their positions for 40 years; new, fresh-out-of-college nurses, you name it, Melissa said.

“I saw it on the floor, but (the pandemic) exacerbated it,” she added. “Emotions are running so high. And it’s common. That’s the freaky thing. (And it’s) in every aspect of nursing – in a skilled nursing facility, in a clinic, and as far as feeling threatened, it’s lateral violence with nurses, too. There’s been this culture of nursing that’s been considered acceptable until now.”

Melissa mentioned having a friend who’s also in the industry, who has seen doctors throw instruments across the operating room and berate nurses.

It helps to read other people’s stories, as a coping mechanism, Melissa said. It helps remind her that she’s not alone.

‘I’m glad people want to change the culture’

Melissa mentioned a large Facebook group she recently found, that was created just for nurses and people in nursing-adjacent positions, to be able to unite and talk amongst themselves. They’re even planning a march in Washington, D.C. on May 12.

One of the reasons for the event is to protest violence in the workplace. Price gouging is also a concern. Nearly 200 House members are urging the White House COVID-19 Response Team to investigate reports that nurse staffing agencies are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase their profits at the expense of patients and the hospitals that treat them. Both of these issues are big, and Melissa said she hopes the march in Washington will become a moment, and lead to a real shift.

“It’s going to be interesting,” she said. “There’s so much surrounding it. I’m glad people want to change the culture.”

Melissa even wrote to a Virginia lawmaker directly, wondering about why exactly officials are looking at price gouging for nursing pay. She questioned whether there was a sexist bias at play, considering the vast majority of nurses are women. She’s eager for answers. Her hotel room for Washington D.C. is already booked.

Melissa feels fortunate to have discovered the Facebook group and the march itself. At the time of our interview, in late February, Melissa said there were more than 200,000 nurses and health care workers in the group already, and many were planning to travel to Washington.

There’s power in numbers, and the solidarity sounds like exactly what these nurses need.

Melissa has now seen so many stories from other nurses who have expressed the same frustrations she has vocalized.

“And we’re just supposed to man up and deal with it,” Melissa said. “But it has given me an outlet to feel like I’m normal.”

‘Do I want to do this for the next 20 years?’

When she’s at home, off the clock, Melissa tries to turn work “off”, so to speak, or engage with other interests and activities.

“It’s actually caused issues in my family,” Melissa said. “My husband is frustrated. I’ve changed jobs, questioned myself and whether I can handle it – dealing with (the pandemic) in the jail, it was like, 500 inmates with COVID at one time. We had them die, we couldn’t say anything, and then we’d get bombarded when we left, with family members calling and saying we didn’t even have real licenses.”

Melissa is well-aware that there were, and still are, other nurses experiencing worse problems, on actual COVID units. She worries about them too, and doesn’t feel right about the staffing situations.

“One of the reasons why hospitals can’t keep nurses is safe staffing ratios,” Melissa said. “Even our hospital here – my friend is in the NICU, and you wouldn’t think they’d be affected. But 30 nurses have left the Level 1 trauma unit.”

People are miserable, short-staffed and powerless. Melissa understands. She too has considered leaving the profession, and has even looked at programs at Virginia Tech, for interior design.

“I’m good at what I do. I love the art of nursing,” Melissa said. “But the odds are so stacked against me. If I go to a hospital or clinic, we’ll be short-staffed. Corrections, you could be one nurse to 800 inmates. That’s not unheard of. And that’s a scary situation. People are chronically ill and incarcerated.

“Do I want to do this for the next 20 years? Under these circumstances, I don’t know that I’ll be able to.”

Read more: