Injured worker’s tale prods lawmakers to pass protective legislation
Froedtert Community Memorial Hospital, where Patricia Moon-Updike was rushed for surgery. | Facebook

MILWAUKEE—Patricia Moon-Updike, a former Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division worker, has a horrifying tale to tell. It’s an all-too-common one among health care workers, though, so she brought it to Capitol Hill.

Almost four years ago, Moon-Updike was mentoring a new nurse at their mental health facility when the nurse was called to subdue a “rather large” 11-year-old violent 150-pound boy. She went along to help.

The nurse, aided by two other workers and two security guards, got the boy – who had a history of disruptive behavior, including breaking windows and smashing doors – into a secure room and onto a mattress. Then the trouble really started.

The boy flipped over on his back and lashed out with his large feet right at her, Moon-Updike told People’s World in an interview on Feb. 27. She talked during a break in a House Education and Labor subcommittee hearing on violence against health care workers.

His foot caught Moon-Updike right in the throat.

“I heard a pop and a bang and grabbed my trachea. My head snapped back and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. Colleagues got her out into the hallway and laid her on the floor. Moon-Updike kept her hands on her throat, feeling if she’d let go, her trachea would collapse – and she’d be dead.

Luckily for Moon-Updike, a trauma center, Froedtert Memorial Hospital, was right across the street, and the ambulance took her there. The doctors took one look and rushed her up to surgery. “I was in complete shock,” she added.

Moon-Updike needed critical help: Even with a breathing tube through her nose, her blood oxygen level was perilously low. “I didn’t know if I would have the chance to say goodbye to my kids.” Hours later, she woke up in Froedtert’s intensive care unit. Her face “looked like Rocky (boxer Rocky Balboa) had hit it, but I was breathing on my own.” Froedtert sent her home two days later.

The story wasn’t done. Moon-Updike was disabled, but Milwaukee County’s attorneys, acting under a GOP county executive’s direction, fought her workers’ comp claim for more than three years, until this past August. She won, but says their opposition was in retaliation for having to report her injury.

By contrast, the federal Social Security Administration took only six months to OK her for disability insurance payments. Moon-Updike, a member of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, part of the Teachers’ (AFT) nursing sector, can’t return to her old job.

Nor can thousands of health care workers injured by patients over the years, not to mention dozens who were killed. And that brought National Nurses United, and Moon-Updike, to testify for legislation to force hospitals and other health care facilities to protect workers.

The hearing was on HR1309, legislation pushed by National Nurses United and AFT to have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) write rules to force health care institutions to write and implement site-specific plans to actively curb patient violence.

The plans to protect the workers don’t have to be complex and expensive, the witnesses told lawmakers. They could include such simple things as higher plexiglass panels and warning buzzers at nurses’ stations, or hiring more security guards. Studies show such measures cut injuries by up to 60 percent – at a Philadelphia hospital – another witness said.

But right now the hospitals and nursing homes react only when OSHA catches them without safeguards after a nurse or other health care worker gets killed or injured, even though the injury rate for health care workers is five times that of workers in general. And that’s just the reported injuries since there’s “a code of silence” among workers to “suck it up” and keep going, Moon-Updike testified.

“Hospitals do not provide safe environments for nurses, patients, their families, and their friends,” Montana Nurses Association/NNU CEO Vicki Byrd, RN, said on a prior telephone press conference on the legislation.

OSHA cites its “general duty clause,” the heart of OSHA, which declares firms “have a general duty” to provide safe and healthy workplaces. When they don’t, OSHA can fine them and order remedial moves – but only after an inspection, an accident, an injury, or a death. The fines are small and firms, including health care institutions, often contest them.

And OSHA doesn’t cover state and local government worksites, such as the Milwaukee County agency Moon-Updike worked for.

“These attacks are becoming more frequent and more serious,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said on the teleconference, citing a non-partisan study. There were 30,000 reported patient attacks on health care workers from 2009-13, the study period.

OSHA has “voluntary” rules to encourage the institutions to improve safety, but witnesses told lawmakers that voluntarism doesn’t work. It also doesn’t prevent institutions from retaliating against workers who complain, including Moon-Updike.

So she’s taken to the road, on AFT’s behalf, speaking for anti-violent-patients legislation in states and now to Congress. Nine states, led by the NNU bastion of California, have passed variations of it. California’s is the toughest and the model for Courtney’s bill.

“I didn’t know when I would be ready to help other health care workers” who suffered injuries or death on the job, Moon-Updike testified. Then, three weeks ago, oncology nurse practitioner Carlie Beaudoin was beaten, raped, run over with her own car, and left to die in subzero weather in a Froedtert garage.

Hospital managers told upset workers they had too few security guards to keep an eye on all the cameras in the complex, Moon-Updike testified. Beaudoin “was found by a snowplow crew.” AFT President Randi Weingarten said on the conference call that in 2016, patients’ attacks killed 58 hospital workers. “This is a silent epidemic,” she added.

“It almost was me,” Moon-Updike added, recalling the attack and its aftermath. That includes periodic depression, fear of crowds, and continuing post-traumatic stress disorder, she told People’s World. “And I jump 10 feet when someone sneaks up behind me.” Beaudoin’s murder made Moon-Updike an advocate to stop such violence.

“I decided it was time to get out there and hold people accountable. We’re helping your mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Who is helping us?” she asks.

Congress may. Courtney said Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., has promised the anti-violence bill will be “out on the House floor by May 1.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.