When a Patient Turns Scary, a Nurse’s Options Aren’t Always Clear

I was leaning over my patient, listening to his lung sounds, when his hand tightened around my wrist. “Why don’t you get in the bed with me?” he said.

Illustration by McClain Moore

That’s the arresting opening of “The Squeeze,” the Reflections essay by nurse Danielle Allen in the September issue of AJN. Such scary experiences happen, as many nurses can attest. What behaviors cross the line? Who decides? After all, nurses put up with lots of challenging behavior. What’s unacceptable, and what constitutes a real safety issue?

Complicating these questions may be the responsibility a nurse feels to not let down their equally burdened nursing colleagues. No one, as Allen writes, wants “to be that nurse. You know, the complainer, overly sensitive, not-a-team-player nurse.”

Allen vividly evokes her encounter with the patient, the varied responses of nursing colleagues later, the emotional aftereffects of the event, and the larger question she finds herself asking about what can be done to keep nurses and other health care workers safe.

Acknowledging that “no protocol can ever be foolproof,” Allen writes:

This incident wasn’t the first time I’d experienced or witnessed violence in nursing, and almost every nurse I’ve talked to has their own story. So the question is, why is violence a commonality in nursing? And how do we collectively change that?

Such questions may need to be asked, lest certain experiences of violence and threat that are far from ordinary come to be accepted as “just part of the job.”


2017-08-28T08:37:02+00:00 August 28th, 2017|Nursing, nursing stories|1 Comment
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

One Comment

  1. Nanette Chiafala August 28, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    It does indeed seem like every nurse has had at least one violent encounter with a patient. On med-surg floors, I came across pt.s going through D.T.’s, or other psychiatric meltdowns (one was a not-yet diagnosed schizophrenic, found sitting on an over-bed table, white baby powder liberally applied to face, and wearing every isolation item stored in the room. Believing he was an “ascended master”, we were physically fought off)… in a different environment altogether, while later working in the O.R., there was a patient emerging from anesthesia, and believing he had just regained consciousness from some bar fight, (& after just undergoing laproscopic knee surgery) stood up on the stretcher just as he was wheeled into the Recovery Room as he threw punches at the Anesthesiologist and myself.
    There are other episodes, but these were before NY State instituted a felony charge against patients attacking Healthcare providers. I am currently not up to date as to what states have followed suit, but at the very least, there should be legal ramifications to those who are violent, in these settings.

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