I started working as a nurse in 1980. Not even three weeks into my training, I was learning how to assist a difficult-to-work-with surgeon during a challenging case. The process brought me to tears — literally. At one point, the surgeon reached across the patient, grabbed my upper forearms and shook me while screaming, “If this patient dies, it will be your fault!
At the time, my skin was as thin as plastic wrap. When I started to tear up, the surgeon screamed, “Don’t you dare cry into the wound!” After the case, I found my supervisor to tell her what had happened. This move prompted the charge nurse to yell at me for bothering the supervisor. It was a very bad day.
That surgeon isn’t the only aggressive, hostile, scalpel-wielding bully I’ve encountered while crisscrossing the country during my four decades as a travel OR nurse.
One surgeon would repeatedly throw instruments at me. When he got mad, he’d pick up a tool, check that it belonged to the hospital and not to him, and then launch it in my direction. There were pock marks all over the OR walls. I got good at ducking.
Another doc used to rap my knuckles with a needle holder. It was his special way of letting me know when it was time to cut the suture. The knuckle-rapper’s partner liked to step on a Raytex on the floor, so sponge counts were incorrect. He’d then rant and rave at everyone for losing a sponge. When we had performed the final count three times, he’d pick up his foot up and yell at us for not seeing it. Those two made quite the team.
Several surgeons I’ve worked with would tell me to get closer to hold a retractor just so they could rest their arm against my breast. A hand surgeon used to physically kick me under the table like a toddler throwing a tantrum.
Of course, surgeons aren’t the only ones who misbehave. I’ve witnessed hostility from nurses, anesthesia providers, scrub techs and every other position associated with surgery. As you can imagine, I’ve developed thick skin by working under such conditions. Even now, nurses find themselves in hostile work environments.
Yes, we’ve made some inroads since I started. Facilities now stress that bad behavior will not be tolerated and even provide 800-numbers for staff to report workplace violence. But how often are those hotlines actually used? Does anything happen to the person being reported or is the support organizations promise victims of bullying simply lip service? I’ve never heard of a surgeon being expelled from a hospital because of hostility or harassing the hired help. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of any clinical staff in the OR getting their walking papers for hostile behavior.
For all the horror, the pandemic has changed the way “we’ve always done it” in so many areas — proper PPE, hand hygiene, telehealth — for the better. Some nurses are still subject to the same toxic ORs I remember from decades ago. Let’s change the way we’ve always done it with workplace hostility, too. Young nurses aren’t sticking around as long as they used to due to the mental and physical demands of the job. Let’s not give them another reason to give up on the profession we love. Let’s make sure the next generation never has to endure what us long-timers suffered through. OSM