I have been a labor and delivery nurse for 44 years, eight of which have been at Swedish Issaquah, and I am proud to have helped deliver many of the children in our community. But as the years have gone by, it has become harder and harder for nurses and other health care workers to take our meal and rest breaks due to understaffing, which can cause extreme mental and physical fatigue, potentially putting our patients at risk. That is why my colleagues and I are calling on the Washington State Legislature to pass an urgently needed bill which will protect breaks for hospital staff and allow us to provide safe, quality care to our patients.
I get a deep sense of gratification from helping women through one of the most special times of their lives, and doing my very best to care for the well-being of newborns. Labor and delivery nurses have some of the most important and highly skilled jobs in the world. Sometimes, the mothers we care for are being prepared for a C-section, or going through a very tough high-risk delivery with eclampsia or other painful disorders which require complex interventions.
Caring for mothers and babies takes patience, compassion, focus and always being able to keep your cool. But it is extremely difficult to be alert when we are not able to take our rest and meal breaks. Recently, I had a very intense 12-hour shift during which I was only able to take a 20-minute meal break and a brief bathroom break from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The term “hangry” has become a pop-culture joke, but when a nurse is tired and fatigued it is no laughing matter, because our patients’ lives are on the line. A Johns Hopkins study found that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease and cancer, and lead to at least 250,000 fatalities a year. Other studies have shown that staff fatigue leads to a higher number of medical errors.
The reason we are not able to take our breaks is that hospitals refuse to implement safe staffing levels. Colleagues who are occupied with duties that take intense focus and attention, such as overseeing fetal monitors or caring for women with epidurals, could be pulled away to attend to another patient if we go on break.
Hospitals are being short-sighted by placing immediate profits ahead of the needs of patients, because understaffing costs more in the long run. Studies show that fatigue is a leading cause of nurse burnout and turnover, and that it can cost up to $58,000 to recruit and train a new nurse.
That is why patient advocacy groups have joined with Washington’s largest nurse and health care unions – the Washington State Nurses Association, UFCW Local 21 and my union, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW – to support a legislative solution. SHB 1155 would require uninterrupted breaks for nurses, nursing assistants and technical staff, and stop the abuse of mandatory overtime by hospital employers. The bill passed the Washington House of Representatives in a bipartisan vote and is now before the state Senate.
The other day I had a mother say to me, “Thank you for keeping me safe” after the successful birth of her beautiful, healthy child. I hope that our state legislators do the morally right thing and vote yes for SHB 1155, so nurses and health care workers can always keep our vulnerable patients safe.
Nancy Gladsjo is a registered nurse in the labor and delivery department at Swedish Issaquah.