Saturday, March 29, 2008

My heart is breaking

Three people died yesterday in a senseless act of violence.

Two of them were my comrades.

I didn't know them, I never met them, I never worked with them, I had never before heard of the hospital where they worked in service to their fellow man, but they made their living and died their deaths doing a thankless job that few people want and even fewer can do.

A 63-year-old man whose mother died while she was a patient in Doctors Hospital in Columbus, Georgia in 2004 armed himself with three handguns and went to the fifth floor of the hospital, the unit where his mother passed away, and started screaming "Where is he?" over and over. He wanted the floor nurse who had cared for his mother in her final days.

He found the nurse and shot him dead, after screaming at him that he was responsible for his mother's death. He then shot and mortally wounded another employee (the report linked says the other employee was an administrative assistant, but I would bet that victim was the unit clerk, because the only time you ever see AA's on the care floors, they are visiting relatives who are inpatients).

The man was able to exit the hospital and walk out the doors, where he shot another victim, a man who pulled up in a pickup truck. Thinking that the man in the pickup was trying to stop him, he shot him in the head, and he died later in surgery.

The shooter then exchanged gunfire with two different law enforcement officers; first with a deputy, then with a motorcycle officer who responded to the call for backup, but no one was hit. A detective in an unmarked car blocked his exit, and when the man shot at him, he stopped him with a shot to the right shoulder, and took him into custody.

Hospital security, apparently, never responded. He descended five flights and exited via the ER - where the security desk has been located in every freakin' hospital I have ever worked in.

Because his injury was not life threatening, he was taken to another facility for treatment and surgery.

He is now a patient, shackled to his bed, under guard and charged with three counts of murder.

I am doubly shaken up by this tragedy because I know what the two hospital employees he murdered in cold blood were feeling right before they died. Thirteen years ago, I had a gun stuck in my face before it was held to my head in an emergency room by a drug addict. (Wanna know what I was thinking? I thought "I'm glad I married a man who can finish raising our kids." Then I closed my eyes and waited, for what seemed like forever, but was really about two (of the longest) minutes (of my life.)

In my case, well-trained, professional hospital security personnel responded, and I am here to tell the tale.

What is fucked up is that my story is not that rare. We have all been attacked and threatened and a shockingly large number of those threats involve firearms.

I have seen way more gunplay in medical centers than I ever imagined I would when in training. I have been stuck at work for hours after my shift was over because the parking lot where my car was sitting was a crime scene. I have simultaneously run units from the bloodbank to the trauma bays for both the policeman with the sparkling eyes who had shamelessly flirted with all of us, who now lay dying in Bay 1; while the punk who shot him lay wounded in Bay 2. (Yes, I have first hand experience in how we are supposed to treat our enemies.)

The problem of workplace violence in hospitals became an issue about two years after I entered the workforce, in the mid-80's, and it has only gotten worse every year since. And yes, I retired last year, after 22, but that status may change again after Zoe goes to school and I get my spiffy new bionic knees. I have certainly never let my credentials lapse and I never will. Sixty-five is almost two decades down the road, after all.

The issue of hospital violence is severe enough that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health issued a report in 2002 on strategies to train hospital personnel to recognize the signs of impending violence and how to defuse potentially violent situations.

And it's all well and good, so far as it goes. But it isn't going to do a damned thing about a person who is bent on murder most foul, on exacting that pound of flesh they are convinced that they are due.

That man was not going to be defused by any HR directors happy-talk.

It is high time we secure hospitals. Start by installing metal detectors and x-ray belts, and putting armed guards on every public entrance. We do it at courthouses and city halls and federal buildings throughout the land, so do it for hospitals, too. We already pretty much successfully lock 'em down after hours anyway. And it isn't like we don't know how to secure a unit. The Labor & Delivery floor is frequently about three levels more secure than Fort fucking Knox - especially in the suburbs.

There are things in hospitals worth protecting. Starting with the personnel - you are as likely to pull a registered nurse off the street as you are to find a bird Colonel walking into a recruiting station, you know. And I haven't even addressed the chemicals, radioactive isotopes and pharmaceuticals that are pretty damned lightly protected - as in a couple of skater punks with mace could knock over some suburban hospitals that don't want to offend their patients with too strenuous a security presence...except in labor and delivery.

Frankly, that hospitals haven't been secured - and that so few of us got proper training for biohazard response, but I digress - tells me all I need to know about how seriously these idiots don't take homeland security.