LOVELAND, Colo. — Nursing was a second career for Kay DeLuca, but it was one she approached with a lot of passion.
Graduating from nursing school at age 50, she switched careers with the hopes of making a difference in people’s lives.
“Honestly, I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to do something that changes the world,’” DeLuca told Denver7 from her Longmont home.
However, a few years into her new career, she learned there was another side to the job that she didn’t learn about in nursing school.
Since starting as a nurse, DeLuca has experienced various forms of assault. She’s been strangled with her stethoscope, bitten by patients and had heavy medical packs thrown at her from across the room.
“You name it, it has occurred,” she said.
In October 2021, DeLuca suffered an assault at the hands of a patient that put her career on hold indefinitely.
While treating a patient at Medical Center for the Rockies in Loveland, DeLuca said the patient lost control and punched her in the chest after staff would not allow him outside to smoke a cigarette. The patient also bit her during the assault.
DeLuca suffered severe medical complications after she developed an infection. She also developed post-traumatic stress disorder and has been out of work for nearly two years as she struggles to recover.
DeLuca is not alone. Data shows workplace assaults against nurses and other medical professionals continue to increase while those in the industry search for answers.
Denver7 Investigates spoke to other nurses on the condition of anonymity who said they too had been slapped, punched and had their hair pulled while on the job. Still, nurses say the issue has largely been ignored. But now some proposed federal legislation could make penalties more severe for assaulting a healthcare worker and require hospitals to create policies and procedures for prevention.
Assaults often go unreported
Jeff Tieman, president and CEO of the Colorado Hospital Association (CHA), said assaults against healthcare workers have traditionally been underreported for a variety of reasons.
“I’ve literally heard people say it’s actually kind of part of (their) job to manage these situations or to face verbal or physical abuse,” Tieman said. “And you know, that’s not right. I think we have a moral obligation to do better for the people who take care of our patients and communities.”
The CHA produced a report in February that showed healthcare workers are five times more likely to suffer workplace violence injuries compared to other industries.
A nurse is assaulted every 30 minutes nationwide, and a survey of Colorado hospitals reported an increase in violence against staff in 2021, with 17.7 assaults per 100 beds. That number was 14.2 assaults per 100 beds in 2020.
At the same time, Colorado is expected to be short 10,000 nurses and 54,000 ancillary workers by 2026, according to the CHA report. Some experts point to assaults as a reason.
“I think we need to encourage a culture or reporting, especially when incidents are really significant,” said Tieman.
Shortage could get worse
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tara Kosmas founded Debriefing the Front Lines, a nonprofit that provides psychological support to nurses and other front line workers. She said those numbers reported by the CHA are not a surprise and believes staffing levels need to increase to help nurses avoid vulnerable situations.
“I suspect those numbers will only grow. They will only intensify if we do not address the national staffing shortage occurring on the front lines of our U.S. healthcare systems,” Kosmas said. “There is going to be a critical emergency, and there are not going to be enough nurses to care for patients.”
Other nurse advocates have pointed to a lack of training as part of the problem. Some nurses have also taken to protesting, as happened at the VA Hospital in July in Aurora. There, nurses picketed outside the hospital over their treatment and a lack of support from management.
Push for more training
At UCHealth, the hospital organization that employed DeLuca, Chief Security Officer Chris Powell said the company has increased training for staff and posted signage in hospitals on how to handle and prevent assaults.
“We focus a lot of our training around de-escalation and recognition of behavior so that we can be more predictive and reactive to anyone committing violence,” Powell said.
Two federal bills are in the process of becoming law and would potentially deter violence against nurses. One would develop a federal standard to develop a workplace violence prevention plan for healthcare facilities. The second would increase penalties for people who assault a healthcare worker, similar to penalties for assaulting a police officer.
“I believe it’s time that we as a nation, and as a state and as a community, put our healthcare workers up front and we link arms with them and tell them we’re here to support you, we’re here to protect you and we’re thankful that you’re here and delivering this mission,” Powell said.
DeLuca decided to press charges against her assailant, Torey Peavy. Peavy was charged with second-degree assault and is also facing more serious charges related to a fatal DUI crash. That case is still pending in Larimer County.
In the end, DeLuca hopes to get healthy again so she can get back to what she loves: making a difference.
“I still want to be a nurse, and I’m still trying to navigate getting my health back and figuring out what I want to do,” she said.
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