Maine Medical Center emergency room nurses Josh Brown (left) and Jen Conover show injuries they sustained on the job from combative patients in a pair of undated photographs provided by their union at a demonstration in Portland on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Health care workers across Maine say they are being attacked by patients more than ever, leaving long-lasting physical and psychological wounds.

That is why more than 60 staff members of Maine Medical Center in Portland represented by the Maine State Nurses Association union held a demonstration outside of the hospital on Thursday, with some bringing a petition to hospital president Jeff Sanders.

It came after months of internal calls for reform, said Lucy Dawson, who has been an emergency room nurse for two decades and is a member of her union’s bargaining unit. She said violence has risen for months, with a nurse nearly strangled to death recently by a patient.

Staff from Maine Medical Center appear outside of the hospital in a demonstration on Thursday demanding that MaineHealth do more to prevent violence against staff. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

“Maine Medical Center is not keeping us safe and when we are not safe, our patients are not safe,” Dawson said.

The increase in violence is a national problem laying bare problems in an interconnected health care system. Other Maine hospitals reported similar issues with violence Thursday. Both hospitals and behavioral health providers have seen worker shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, with patients needing psychiatric care sometimes waiting days in emergency rooms.

Medical personnel across the country have seen increasing violence in recent years, with hospitals seeing 73 percent of all non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses due to violence in 2018, according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That increased 63 percent since 2001. Many fear the problem has worsened during the pandemic.

Physical or verbal assaults are happening multiple times a day at Maine’s biggest hospital, the nurses said in Portland on Thursday. At Brewer-based Northern Light Health, which has 10 Maine hospitals from Portland to Presque Isle, has also seen increased workplace violence in recent years, spokesperson Suzanne Spruce said.

She said Northern Light has sought to stem those attacks through various measures: hiring additional security, training staff on how to deal with such situations, working with law enforcement and enhancing behavioral health services across Maine.

Northern Light has also lobbied state legislators to alter Maine laws against attacks on health care workers. Current law requires attacked employees to give their name and address to the alleged offender if charges are pressed, something Spruce said “has served as a deterrent for more of these crimes to be prosecuted.”

Maine Medical Center emergency room nurse Josh Brown displays injuries he sustained on the job from combative patients in an undated photographs provided by his union at a demonstration in Portland on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

In response to the violence, nurses at MaineHealth demanded changes in a petition signed by over 90 emergency room nurses this month. It focuses on increased staff-to-patient ratios when treating patients who had shown signs of aggression and having a stronger security presence. Leadership had resisted such demands, Dawson said, but she added there had been “some movement” on commitments to increased staffing this week.

The rise in violence against health care personnel was a “second pandemic” and at its worst point in decades, said Nate Mick, vice chair of emergency medicine at Maine Medical Center, in a news conference held by hospital officials after the protest.

He said much of the violence had been perpetrated by patients with mental and intellectual disabilities who “don’t really belong” in the emergency department. He noted that many had required long stretches of care in a department built for immediate assistance.

“Our health care team is being put in the worst possible position for a health care provider to be in,” Mick said

Emergency room nurse Lucy Dawson speaks during a demonstration outside of Maine Medical Center in Portland on Thursday. Dawson and others had been calling for the hospital to address increased violence against staff. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Mick deferred from discussing the nurses’ demands directly when asked about it but said his department was doing everything possible to keep emergency room staff safe amid the increased violence.

“We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place,” Mick said.

The nurses at MaineHealth are not blaming patients themselves for the violence, said Heather Emmons, an emergency room nurse. She said that the attackers were “sick and injured” in an unfamiliar environment.

“We know what we signed up for,” Emmons said. “But we also know that Maine Med can do a lot more to keep us safe.”