The patient, an addict who had been denied drugs in the ER, stood up on her stretcher as the nurse walked away.
"She grabbed my hair from behind, whipped my head around and tried to gouge out my eyes," said United Federation of Teachers nurse Renee Setteducato.
Setteducato suffered a sprained neck. She called the police and the patient later appeared in court. The punishment? The patient was told not to come back to the hospital.
A new state law NYSUT and its health care professionals fought courageously for provides on-duty RNs and LPNs with greater protection.
Beginning in November, assaulting or causing physical injury to an on-duty nurse is a felony in New York state. Although emergency personnel have long had this protection, nurses did not until now.
"Nurses have been victimized and there was no real penalty. This will make a difference in the culture of caring," said NYSUT Board member Anne Goldman, chairperson of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council.
"No member of the work force should be placed in harm's way, particularly without an avenue for recourse," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, whose office oversees health care issues for the union.
Unflagging activism got the law enacted, Setteducato said. "It's all because of the union pushing forward, with lobby day and VOTE-COPE. This is what we donate our time and money to," she said.
Carol Braund, an RN and president of the United University Professions Upstate Medical Center chapter, said the law "provides a safer environment for all of us to work in."
The law breaks the longstanding practice among RNs and LPNs, especially hospital nurses who are the more likely to be assaulted, to "turn the other cheek," so to speak.
Setteducato, a nurse for 39 years, said nurses were told not to fight back, not to risk losing their license. The injured had little support. "For the most part we felt it was a consequence of the job," said UFT nurse Chris Perillo.
Setteducato is now spreading the news about the new law, speaking at nurse orientations, through e-mail blasts, at labor-management and nurse retention and recruitment meetings. "This (law) is terrific. It restores our unalienable rights under the Constitution," she said.
Nancy Barth Miller, also a UFT nurse, said new codes are in place for heightened security alerts in response to an increase of violence at the downstate hospital where she works. "A lot of drug-seeking individuals come to the hospital," she said, "and they tend to become very violent if they don't get what they want."
Injured nurses require physical and mental healing. Staff who witness the violence are also traumatized, Miller said. Setteducato hopes more protections for nurses can be realized, and NYSUT will continue to push for them.
"We want hospitals to keep on file patients that have a history of assault or of being potentially dangerous," she said.