Roy Exum: Our Shattered Nurses

Thursday, April 9, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

At the massive Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace Hospital on Sunday the night-shift emergency room nurses came in, went to the break room, and staged a “sit in.” This wasn’t about pay; it was about mismanagement.  After four hours of bantering back and forth, the sit-in nurses were told “either get to work or get out!”

The nurses got out. And why? “We had two nurses the other day who had 26 patients with 10 on ventilators. And nobody to help out,” said one, who should have added – as if it would have made a difference – that all 26 patients were on drips (IVs) that had to be monitored, meds to be given, charts to be kept, doctors ordering necessary changes, food to be served and this, on top of patient hygiene that with a vicious infection is now more critical than it has ever been. That’s right -- two nurses for 26 critical-care beds.

Right now, Detroit is a coronavirus epicenter. There are over 20,000 cases of the coronavirus in Michigan (no. 3 in the country), and this was before 3,125 new cases were reported yesterday. Michigan’s death rate jumped to 959, with 232 more in the last 24 hours, and Detroit is the hardest hit. Located in Wayne County, Detroit has 9,180 cases (1,536 new) and 446 dead (100 new).

Understand this -- in a city of 675,000 people, Detroit is a powder keg surrounded by a relentless fire. Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace Hospital, with 2,000-plus licensed beds, is already bulging.
“We’ve had over 110 new patients every day for three weeks. We have an average of 12-14 nurses during the day but at night that drops to eight,” said one shattered RN. “We’ve been accepting that, and have worked hard, but we’ve reached our breaking point. We cannot safely take care of people’s loved ones,” he added with tears in his eyes, his devastation yielding the truest understatement of a now raging pandemic. It is a scene that is playing out across the country where, as of early last night, the United States had 428,901 cases (34,755 new) and 14,600 dead (1,973 new.)

When the six nurses were ordered out, the ER’s day shift, already worn to a frazzle, was forced to work another 12-hour shift, which equates to 24 straight hours of chaos. Who among us can bear that? Every nurse knows somebody will die. Every nurse working at breakneck speed wonders if a lack of care – in this case their personal, individual care – will result in a death because of what they were physically unable to do. The horrible truth is that every doctor and nurse in America shares that same curse at this very minute. And there is nobody who can help.

At Vanderbilt, Nashville’s biggest hospital, a “manpower command center” is frantically recruiting ‘travel’ nurses and nursing-school students close to graduation. The new problem is that in order to hire RN ‘temps,’ Vanderbilt is confronted by a very competitive marketplace. The salaries they must offer are astronomical – in one case $5,500 a week – whereas the veteran ER nurses at Vanderbilt and other level one trauma centers are paid much, much less.

There is a rumor, unsubstantiated mind you, that CHI-Memorial Hospital is paying emergency nurses of upwards to $4,000 per day. This is a desperate staffing situation and hospitals are “furloughing” their non-necessary to obtain front-line help. Memorial is also offering RNs sizable sign-on bonuses, according to sources.

One Vanderbilt ER registered nurse, speaking with anonymity, told the Nashville Tennessean, “My starting pay is less than $24 per hour,” she said, explaining that overtime (pushing her to 48 to 60 hours a week) is how she makes ends meet. With her normal 36-hour week, she takes home less than $1,000 a week. “We are nurses. We understand the risks. But we are putting our families at risk. Kroger is offering their workers more pay right now – other places are, too. I think financial compensation for how hard we are working would be a good way to say ‘thank you. We appreciate you.'”

Nationally the average pay for a RN is $37.37 an hour. In Tennessee the average is $29.48, this from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to other national statistics, in the United States the average annual salary for a registered nurse is currently $73,550 which breaks down as an average of $35.36 per hour, $1,414 per week and a monthly salary of $6,129.

After a rash of calls from the news media, Vanderbilt announced on Monday it would immediately give pay increases to all registered nurses but didn’t specify any amounts, saying direct-care nurses would be informed by their supervisors. An email obtained by the Nashville newspaper revealed an increase for experienced nurses would be $3 per hour, while those with less than three years experience would get a $2/hour increase. To wit, an ER nurse with 10 years experience at Vanderbilt who works three 12-hour shifts per week will now make $108 more a week.

Hospitals in New York are offering temporary RNs $10,327.80 a week in addition to travel and housing stipends. But it comes with a heavy threat; in New York the infectious disease doctors have told front-line staff that, statistically, “there is a 100 percent chance you will become infected.”

Last month COVID-90 related jobs for nurses jumped to over $3,000 per week in “hot spot” cities in the United States and some hospitals are paying nurses over 100 percent more than before the virus. Several hospitals are also providing housing for at-risk medical professionals who fear they may take the virus home with them.

One Vanderbilt nurse told the Tennessean, “I hear people talking about ‘hazard pay’ and I kinda go back and forth on that. We knew what we signed up for when we became nurses. I think if we were working anywhere else where the pay was equitable, I don’t think COVID should necessarily mean extra pay (for all nurses) if we were already fairly paid. The problem is we are not.”

* * *


“I have to call uncle. It’s too much. Too much. I need help,” said I.C.U. nurse Linda Barton. She works at Norwood Hospital in Boston and said this past weekend was the busiest and scariest of her career. “This weekend was beyond difficult,” Barton said. “I kept asking and telling them we needed more help. We needed more hands, we needed more RNs, we needed more aids.”

What’s shocking to veteran nurses is the degree of illness they see. “They’re very, very sick. These are people who were living their lives normally two weeks ago, and now are on life support, and I’m extremely worried about their survival,” she said.

Another nurse, Kelly Williams, told a reporter, “The number of patients that are presenting to our hospitals right now is something that we have never had in our entire careers, have never even thought of or heard of, and the patients that are coming in are much sicker.”

Barton added, “This weekend I did not feel safe … When you’re so busy and being pulled in 15 different directions every single minute of a 12, 13, 14, 15-hour day, mistakes are going to be made, and I’m really worried about that for myself and my colleagues.”

* * *


New York State now has more confirmed cases of the coronavirus than any single country in the world outside of the United States, At 8 o’clock last night, the USA had 428,901 cases (34,755 new) with 23,229 (1,861 new) recovered and 14,600 (1,973 new) deaths. The world’s totals were 1,500,830 cases (67,949 new), with 317,855 (19,466 new) recovered and 87,706 (6,506 new) deaths.

New York had a record numbers of deaths on Wednesday, with 149,316 cases (9,291 new) and 779 more deaths in the last 24 hours pushing the fatality numbers to 9,219 dead. No. 2 Spain has 148,220 cases (1,465 new), and No. 3 Italy has 139,422 (1,737 new). Germany, now 4th, has 113,296 (4,251 new).

Comparatively, in the United States, No. 2 New Jersey has 47,437 (2,907 new), No. 3 Michigan has 20,346 (1,376 new), No. 4 California has 17,674 (1,311 new), and No. 5 Louisiana 17,030 (746 new). Georgia is No. 10 among the states with 9,901 (1,083 new) and Tennessee is at No. 18 with 4,362 (98 new) cases, 592 (126 new) recovered, and 79 (7 new) deaths.

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