Nurses press for health care system fixes during march

Nurses press for health care system fixes during march


By Rose Hoban

We’ve heard throughout the pandemic about nursing shortages, but there was no scarcity of nurses gathering this past Thursday in the nation’s capital.

Thousands of them, including many from North Carolina, marched from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to demand better working conditions that could ultimately benefit those in their care.

They rallied at the culmination of National Nurse Week, a seven-day celebration of the frontline workers that ends on the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the 20th-century reformer often described as “the founder of modern nursing.”

The marchers hope to continue to reform modern nursing with better nurse-to-patient ratios and national laws setting staffing standards, fairer wages and statutes that protect them from the violence against health care workers highlighted by the pandemic.

Lalisa Fulwilie, a nurse working in Charlotte, said she had never participated in anything like the march. Her experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic compelled her to make the trip to Washington this year.

“[COVID] was as awful as you could think it was,” Fulwilie said. “It was as bad, if not worse than what they showed on TV. It’s not normal for people to see people die in front of you after they’ve only come in for a day or two. That’s not normal.”

Fulwilie and her colleagues went to hospital management asking for extra help to deal with the fatigue and stress created by caring for pandemic patients. They were galled by the response, when they were told to seek their own counseling, even as management publicly called them “heroes.”

“The hospital didn’t offer anything,” she said. Like most of the other nurses NC Health News spoke to, she declined to name her institution. “It was like, you know, ‘Keep going, keep going, the patients are still coming.’”

For Asheville-based nurse Heather Drummond, the pandemic was also the last straw. The pandemic exposed pre-existing fissures in health care, she said, showing how the system creaked and groaned under the onslaught of so many perilously sick patients. 

Nurses who gathered in Washington, D.C. carried signs asking for more staff members at patients’ bedsides and for Congress to take action on several laws. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“We’re ready for our government to do something about the unsafe conditions in our hospitals,” Drummond said.

The frustrations that Drummond expressed were echoed by dozens of nurses interviewed by NC Health News. They marched because of higher workloads with sicker patients, lack of pay increases, lack of respect from hospital managers and burnout.

Almost to a person, the nurses said they hoped to build a national movement to push Congress to act.

‘Safe staffing saves lives’

One of the primary demands being made by nurses on the street was for the creation and implementation of national minimum staffing ratios for nurses at the bedside. 

California passed minimum nurse-patient staffing ratios in 1999 that many of the nurses said should be rolled out across the country. Nurses in California now care for fewer patients per shift than in  most of the rest of the country. 

“There are massive bodies of evidence that support these ratios and better outcomes for patients,” Drummond said.

Research from many decades has shown that adding registered nurses to a floor results in reduced chance of death for patients, fewer infections, fewer bedsores, fewer medication errors, less nurse burnout, better staff retention and higher patient satisfaction.

Durham emergency nurse Kristin Monesmith said she and her co-workers routinely care for too many patients on the night shift. Monesmith recounted how she was reprimanded recently after she, as the nurse in charge of delegating assignments and maintaining a smooth and efficient flow of care, stopped accepting patients into one of the emergency department “pods.” In the area, she had one staff nurse and two recent graduates who lacked significant experience and a  triage nurse who had to shift from her duty of assigning where patients would go to caring for them. They were tending to 10 patients.

“Every single patient they had was a critical care patient,” Monesmith recalled. “They coded one, they intubated three. All they did was run from one emergency to the next.”

In California, the standard staffing for critical care is two patients per nurse. 

Monesmith’s friend Krista Lee is a trauma nurse from Prospect Hill who works in a busy emergency department. When a trauma case comes, Lee said she shifts from working with emergency medical patients and moves to the area where trauma patients are taken. This leaves the nurses caring for critically ill patients shorthanded. 

She recounted how, on one recent shift, nine trauma patients came in overnight and she had to respond, leaving one coworker alone to care for eight critical care patients.

Other emergency department nurses told similar tales. 

“You have an ICU patient in the emergency department and you’re expected to take care of that ICU patient and three or four other patients, and you’re expected to give them the optimum care,” Jessica Burton, a nurse from Statesville, said. “However, you can’t because you have so much stuff and they’re hollering at you, ‘Get this patient in, get this patient through, get his question to the floor.’ But if there’s no beds on the floor, you’re stuck with four or five patients.”

Fulwilie said that when she started nursing in 1997, she would never have more than three patients in the ICU. 

“Now, I see our new nurses who have five or six patients at a time,” Fulwilie said. “Psych nurses … we’re having to run a unit with 18 and 20 psychotic patients and two nurses and maybe two techs.” 

Registered nurses Victoria Williams (l) and Sheree Hayes (r) who both work in North Carolina were in Washington with their nursing school friend Lucy Hudson (middle), who works in Tennessee, to demonstrate for better working conditions for nurses. The women said that too few staff create conditions for medical errors. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“It’s a patient safety issue by having more patients than you can handle, which is stretching us and [we’re] basically not able to provide the care and the adequate care that they need,” said Victoria Williams, a nurse from Fayetteville. “Because you have so many patients, the patients are kind of neglected in a way, you know?”

Then her friend Lucy Hudson, a nurse from Tennessee, chimed in, “And it’s easy to make mistakes and when that happens they want to come for your license.” 

Chilling effect

Many of the nurses wore t-shirts and carried signs expressing solidarity with RaDonda Vaught, a Nashville-based nurse who was recently found guilty of negligent homicide after she made a medication error that resulted in a patient’s death. (Vaught was sentenced to  three years probation on Friday.)

Hudson, Williams and her nursing school friend Sheree Hayes said the chilling effect of the Vaught prosecution was leading them to reconsider the profession in light of the increased caseloads, which they said set them up for medical errors. 

The women pointed to research that shows that overburdened health care professionals are more prone to errors, especially in health care systems that force nurses to perform workarounds such as creating shortcuts to open electronic medication closets to get things done. That’s what allegedly happened in the Vaught case. 

“That’s why nurses are walking away from this profession, because we’re afraid because of something like that what happened and then we’re the ones to blame,” said Hayes, who works in Charlotte. 



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