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‘We don't have any idea how big the crisis is’ | Lack of documentation is hiding scope of violence against nurses on the job

5 On Your Side found more than a dozen people in the St. Louis area criminally charged for attacking hospital staff just since June.

ST. LOUIS — Nurses devote their lives to helping other people, but more and more often, they're getting attacked on the job. Now, they’re sounding the alarm about the growing problem of violence against them.

"I was attacked. It was July 2015. I was working the night shift at a hospital," said Britt Phillips.

Phillips said she was helping a patient with a personality disorder at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in Wentzville.

"I had to step in and prevent her from hurting herself," Phillips said. "In the process of doing that, she managed to pick me up and throw me against the wall, against the floor several different times."

Her impact with a TV left a cut on her back.

"When help did get there, she was still very combative and aggressive and threw me a couple more times,” Phillips said.

She was out of work for a month recovering from her mostly internal injuries. The physical reminder of the attack hasn't gone away.

"Definitely, I still feel it,” she said.

Her story isn't unique. 5 On Your Side found more than a dozen people in the St. Louis area criminally charged for attacking hospital staff just since June.

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Court documents show one patient at Barnes-Jewish Hospital punched a nurse so hard, he lost consciousness and fell backward, fracturing his skull on the floor. He suffered brain bleeding and didn't regain consciousness for 24 hours, the charging documents said.

"I think we're seeing it on the rise, not just here in St. Louis but across the country,” said Kathy Bonser, the chief nursing officer for SSM Health St. Louis.


"Not only do we have the burgeoning mental health crisis that is across our nation but also the rampant opioid abuse,” she said.

A nurse was the victim in more than 80% of attacks by patients from 2012 to 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that was two years ago

“We don't have any idea how big the crisis is at all,” said Heidi Lucas, the state director for the Missouri Nurses Association.

The association is working to get legislation passed that would require hospitals to document every incident.

"And then the state would report out those numbers,” Lucas said.

That data would allow them to diagnose the problem and figure out how to fix it, she said.

This year, a new law in Illinois took effect that requires hospitals and health care providers to implement a violence prevention plan. They're one of a handful of states to take that step.

SSM Health’s facilities in Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin started tracking incidents of verbal and physical abuse in their facilities this year.

"It's trying to understand what events took place that led up to this, so what can we learn and do differently to keep our employees safe,” Bonser said.

At SSM Health St. Mary's emergency department in Richmond Heights, they've also installed signs to warn patients and visitors aggressive behavior will not be tolerated.

"It's one of the fundamental aspects of my job, to keep employees safe,” Bonser said.

They've increased the use of their metal detector, and they're part of a pilot program testing personal alarms for staff. All part of a new reality of danger on the job.

"I don't see this issue resolving anytime soon,” Britt Phillips said.

That’s why, as an instructor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, she’s teaching the next generation of nurses how to protect themselves while helping others.

“I want my students to have the tools that they need no matter what setting, so they can keep themselves safe,” she said.

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