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"Be kind." Hospital system launches publicity campaign as staff face continued aggression

The receiving area of Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.
Spectrum Health
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Spectrum Health's Level I Trauma Center is located in Butterworth Hospital's emergency department in Grand Rapids.

Case numbers are declining. The surge is subsiding. After two years and four brutal waves of the pandemic, the word “normal” is back in use.

But at West Michigan’s largest health system, frontline staff say the situation they're facing is still not “normal.”

And now it’s not the unbearable patient loads, or supply shortages. It’s the daily acts of aggression, and even assault, from patients.

“I don’t know if that will come down anytime soon,” says Angela Harris, a security officer at Spectrum Health. “I think it’s changed people. The whole culture and the whole mindset of people right now with COVID and the fear and the frustration is still very much in the forefront of everybody’s mind.”

“I’ve personally been punched, I’ve been bitten, I’ve been spit on. "
Angela Harris, security officer at Spectrum Health

Spectrum Health says calls to security from staff increased more than 80% at its hospitals from 2019-2021, and the aggression hasn’t let up.

“I’ve personally been punched, I’ve been bitten, I’ve been spit on. I’ve had all kinds of bodily functions thrown at me,” says Harris, who says she’s also been sexually assaulted on the job.

The most recent assault, she says, came less than two weeks ago when a patient pulled her hair, while she was trying to talk them down.

Becky Kutsche is a nurse who’s been treating COVID patients since the fall of 2020.

“Having my first COVID patient,” she says, “you can’t forget it.”

She remembers that patient struggling to breathe, asking to go on a ventilator, and using her phone to say goodbye to his family.

“Once you saw that, then you know it’s real,” Kutsche says. “I’ve had too many conversations like that.”

Kutsche also remembers the community support that frontline staff saw in the early days of the pandemic, people standing outside the hospital with signs of encouragement, food donations pouring in.

“And I don’t remember anyone being real harsh during that big first wave,” she says.

But while the pandemic worsened, the support waned.

“Must of the abuse has hit … after the vaccine came out,” Kutsche says.

Family members bristled at visitor restrictions. Many questioned their care, and insisted on other treatments they’d read about online.

Kutsche remembers the family member of one patient cornering a colleague, shouting at them.

“He was walking away and I said, ‘Are you okay?’ And he heard me say that to her, and he turned around and said, ‘She’s fine. She is fine, aren’t you fine?’ And I said, ‘I’m not talking to you sir, I am talking to her.’”

Then the family member got in her face. Staff called security, and he was escorted out.

Kutsche, who specializes in treating patients with neurological disorders, says she’s come to expect a certain amount of risk in her job. Some acts of aggression, she says, are almost “forgivable”, given the patient’s condition. She recalls one incident when a patient intentionally peed on her. She didn’t even call security.

For many frontline healthcare workers, abuse has always been part of the job. But the pandemic clearly made it worse.

Citing the rise in aggression and assault toward staff, Spectrum Health has launched a publicity campaign, asking patients to “be kind” and “be respectful” toward staff.

Both Harris and Kutsche say the assaults have taken a toll on them, mentally and emotionally. Kutsche says she’d like to see even more security measures added to protect healthcare workers, including security officers on each floor, and a lock-down area for the most physically aggressive patients.

But for now, all most frontline staff can do is just to ask for more kindness. From patients, from visitors, from everyone in the community.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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