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Maine Medical Center ER nurses detail violent patient attacks, demand change

"We have been hit, bitten, choked, shoved, kicked, spit upon, and concussed."

PORTLAND, Maine — Nurses who work in the emergency department at Maine Medical Center delivered demands to hospital leaders Thursday after a rally and press conference designed to draw attention to violent incidents they have experienced when working with patients.

The nurses at the event reported that patients assault them on a daily basis, an issue they say started to spike six months ago. Now, they are calling on hospital management to instate new measures designed to keep them safe.

"We are being attacked by violent patients in the emergency room," Heather Emmons, a nurse at Maine Medical Center's emergency department, said.

The nurses said Thursday that management agreed the night before to make sure two nurses and two security guards are assigned to each violent patient in the department.

"Things are very far from fine," MMC nurse Lucy Dawson said. "We have been hit, bitten, choked, shoved, kicked, spit upon, and concussed."

Nurses and leaders at the emergency department said the department is taking care of people who need long-term mental health care. 

"The bottom line is, if nurses are coming into work feeling scared, not feeling safe, how are patients supposed to have a safe place to heal?" Meg Dionne, another MMC nurse, said.

MaineHealth, the health care system that owns MMC, hosted a news conference Thursday to address the nurses' concerns. 

MMC's Emergency Department Associate Chief Nate Mick, M.D., shared concerns the nurses expressed regarding difficulties the emergency room department faces when caring for patients experiencing mental health challenges.

"Quite honestly, it's as bad as it's been in my 20 plus years in medicine," Mick said. 

The hospital receives patients with autism and other intellectual or developmental delays, Mick continued, and because of a lack of dedicated mental health facility at the hospital that can care for their needs, patients end up staying in the emergency department, sometimes for months, which Mick said the department is not designed to handle.

"Our health care team is being put in the worst possible position for a health care provider to be put in," Mick said. "It's not designed for care that stretches to days or weeks or months, even, particularly for this patient population where we have little to offer. In these circumstances, the health care environment really does cease to be therapeutic."

Katie Fullam Harris, chief government affairs officer for MaineHealth, said MMC has six behavioral health beds in the emergency department, but that three of them have been occupied by patients who have been there for weeks. The hospital system's leadership is calling on the state to bolster the mental health care infrastructure in Maine, especially for those in crisis.

"It's been quite some time that we've recognized that our behavioral health system is crumbling and that more needs to be done to invest in behavioral health and a continuum of services," Fullam Harris said in the news conference.

Caroline Cornish, senior manager of communications and public affairs at MaineHealth, shared data in an email Thursday tracking incidents of workplace violence. Cornish noted in the email that not all of the incidents involve physical violence. 

In 2021, the total number of incidents of workplace violence at MMC was 2,662, the email stated. In January 2022, 303 incidents were reported, compared to 423 in December 2021 and 127 incidents in January 2021. 

In cases of combative workplace violence, which were defined in the email as "any use of physicality directed at a person, object, or the environment (punching, kicking, hitting, spitting, throwing, etc.)," 172 cases were reported in January 2022. This is up from 51 incidents in January 2021 and down from the 239 cases reported in December 2021.   

RELATED: Maine DHHS, Spurwink opening state's first comprehensive crisis center

Maine DHHS announced Thursday that they are opening a new Crisis Receiving Center in Portland in partnership with Spurwink. The new center is designed to help people experiencing mental health crisis get help in that moment. 

Right now, people can receive services from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week at 62 Elm St. in Portland. Psychiatry services are available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but the facility soon will be running 24/7.


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