Saving lives was the reason I became a registered nurse. For more than 30 years, I’ve worked with some of the sickest patients at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, helping them on the path to recovery. My passion for saving lives has taken me across the U.S. and as far as the Philippines, Nepal, and Haiti to help with disaster response. Today, I’m worried about a brewing disaster that affects people here in my community: a chronic understaffing by hospitals that puts the lives of the patients I care for at risk and jeopardizes nurses who are doing their job to protect patient safety.
In 1999, nurses fought to protect our patients by passing a new law that requires hospitals to have safe levels of nurse staffing. With the common-sense rules we passed, we aimed for nurses to be able to deliver the care each patient deserves: the sicker the patients, the fewer assigned to each nurse. Nurses must have adequate training to respond to the needs of patients in our care. Hospitals must have plans to cover gaps such as legally required lunch breaks, so there is no time when nurses are stretched so thin that we can’t meet the needs of the people we’re caring for.
Unfortunately, in the two decades since California adopted this groundbreaking patient protection law, hospitals have poked major holes in our safe standards of care by finding new ways to evade the rules. Often, hospitals establish a “buddy system” where nurses are expected to cover double the number of patients when one goes on a meal or break– even though this violates the law. Sometimes a supervising nurse is assigned to cover patients while simultaneously doing other administrative jobs, and may even be assigned to cover areas where he or she doesn’t have appropriate training. These shortcuts save the hospital money, but they come at the expense of patient safety.
As an operating room nurse, I see first-hand what these hospital shortcuts mean for patients. Recently, I was asked to be one of several nurses assisting with delicate brain surgery on a patient who had a life-threatening aneurysm, even though none of us had been trained for the procedure. Management told us that any of us could do the work because we had general training for minimally invasive surgeries. Accepting the assignment would mean putting our license at risk, but more importantly, it jeopardized the patient’s safety, so we all refused. Unfortunately, some hospitals try to punish nurses or even fire them for refusing such unsafe assignments.
Nurses should never be caught between speaking up for patient safety and risking our jobs. That’s why we are sponsoring AB 1102 (Rodriguez), which will be voted on in the Assembly Health Committee this Tuesday. AB 1102 protects patient safety by ensuring nurses can’t be fired or retaliated against when we blow the whistle on unsafe staffing conditions in hospitals or refuse assignments that put patient lives at risk.
I love nursing and the opportunity it gives me to help people become healthy. I’m proud that my union is working to protect patients and RN licenses. Earning an “RN” is hard, and it’s frustrating to see my colleagues asked to put their hard-earned license at risk so the hospital can save money.
We must make sure every nurse is equipped to do her job to stand up for patients without putting his or her job at risk. I urge California’s lawmakers to stand with nurses and stand up for patients by voting yes on AB 1102.
Gayle Batiste, Operating Room Registered Nurse, Northridge Hospital Medical Center and President, SEIU Local 121RN.