Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, writes a monthly post for this blog and works as an infusion nurse in outpatient oncology.
Recently I was attacked by a stranger while running in the bright, mid-morning sunlight of summer through a populated urban setting.
My attacker did not know I am a nurse, so it’s only coincidental that it was violence against a nurse. However, I believe my nurse’s training contributed to choices I made in response.
How It Began: As I was running towards home through a busy recreational area along the river, a disheveled man on a bicycle turned a corner from the opposite direction and I swerved left to avoid collision. I thought nothing of it, and continued on.
First Contact: A few yards later, the same man rode closely up alongside of me so suddenly that I was startled when he angrily yelled something in gibberish. My nurse’s education and experience had schooled me not to react, not to make eye contact, and to get out of his personal space. At this point, the sidewalk forked. The stranger continued towards the left. I went right, on the greenway along the river. I kept running to put distance between us.
Second Contact: I felt him coming after me on his bicycle. I knew he was going to run me down. The nurse’s ability to critically think after a rapid assessment came to my aid. To the right was the river embankment lined with rocks. It wasn’t a long fall, but the loose rocks and the river held potential for further harm if he pursued. Instead, I chose to cross left, and then make my way up and through the landscaping of the riverfront condominiums. I didn’t succeed: he hit me from behind with his bike, yelling “Run faster!”
I knew it was important to stay on my feet, and throwing my weight backwards to stop the momentum, I did—grateful for an exercise class I’d started several weeks ago, strengthening my core.
Third Contact: While I stumbled but remained upright, he rode in front of me, blocking the way. Unusually for the location, at this moment no one else was present. I had my cell phone, but did not believe the police would find me in time. I knew I couldn’t outrun him, so I did something I’d learned from hospital security: I screamed. My best slasher movie scream. Over and over. The attacker said, “Stop screaming, you’ll call the police.” But he did not leave.
“Damn straight I’m calling the police!” I yelled, and continued screaming.
“Someone is home in these condos,” I thought. “Someone will help me.” And someone did. Standing on his deck, a man called down, “Do you need help?”
“YES! I’m being attacked! This man ran me down with his bicycle!” I yelled up. At this point, the attacker fled.
“Should I call 911?” the man asked.
His question confused me. “I don’t know.”
Aftermath: I reported the incident to the condominiums’ security. I texted my husband. He came and drove me home. Once there, he insisted I report the incident to the police. I called their non-emergency line, and they sent an officer to our home. She said I could have called 911, that what I’d experienced was in fact an emergency.
Why do nurses find it easier to act on behalf of others than on our own behalf? I know I would call 911 if I witnessed this happening to someone else.
It’s not surprising that when I shared this story, many nurses generously supported me with their stories of being attacked too. Others confided they didn’t know if they could scream like I did, since they were limited by physical conditions such as asthma—a distressing possibility that had never occurred to me before.
Obviously, this attack did not occur because I am a nurse, but skills and tools learned from nursing aided my choices. I urge nurses to take time to review the resources listed in the above link, as well as those listed below:
- Avoid engaging irate patients or family members. Call security for intervention prior to an escalation.
- Never put a dangerous patient between yourself and an exit.
- Trust your instincts when they tell you that you are in danger.
- Carrying your cell phone while traipsing through sparsely populated areas in the hospital is a good idea, but know where the dead zones are.
- Don’t hesitate to pull a fire alarm to summon help. A teenager saved lives during a local school shooting by using this tactic, evacuating students, and bringing emergency crews rapidly to the scene.
- Carry a whistle if you can’t scream. However, its effectiveness depends on awareness that it is a call for help. Alarm fatigue doesn’t just occur in hospitals: In fact, I screamed at least six times before someone came out to check.
- Pepper spray is legal to carry in Oregon, and virtually everyone has urged me to carry it. Interestingly, the police officer urged me to take a class in its use before using it. She pointed out that in windy areas (like the river) it could blow backwards, disabling me instead of an attacker. Food for thought.
One last thought: two years ago, this blog published a post explaining the difference between gym class and physical fitness education. I posted a comment, an excerpt of which now seems prescient:
I was fortunate to have a physical education teacher my senior year of high school. I was one of those kids perfectly happy to sit out gym class, reading a book, until Ms. H. She explained physical fitness means you are strong enough to pull yourself out of danger.
Thank you, Ms. H, wherever you are.