Nurse Bully Nightmare

Ironically, years before I had blue hair, they called me “Thing 2”. The Cat in the Hat reference to the mischievous trouble maker was unsettling, but that’s what they thought of me. This was my sad reality.  I remember feeling uneasy walking through those halls, knowing that there were numerous nurses on the unit, this shift specifically, who wished I would quit. This wasn’t just an assumption, I heard it with my own ears various times. Once while standing outside the door during a Retention and Recruitment Committee meeting, I heard a nurse say, “…ever since they showed up, shit has hit the fan, Thing 1 and Thing 2 need to go.” I had so much anger, fear, and disappointment building. How could this really be happening at my job?

I had often dreamed of the day that I would have RN after my name. It always felt so empowering to know that I would be taking care of others, that I would be a vital part of the medical field. But this experience was nothing like my dreams, in fact, it was a nightmare; a nightmare that lasted 6 months and created trauma that I will live with forever.

As a brand-new night shift nurse working a fragile patient population, I had innumerable worries about properly providing care. I had to learn new calculations, take new precautions, understand new diagnoses, learn new procedures, and treatments. Add onto it all, adjusting my sleep schedule to work the third shift including an hour plus commute. All these things were obstacles I could manage, sure I would fumble occasionally, but I would learn from those fumbles and build a stronger base to stand on. Once the bullying began though, my base slowly began to crumble.

It all started with a nap—a napping nurse—that was taking a rest while she was supposed to be watching over critically ill patients. When another younger nurse (a friend, who would soon be dubbed “Thing 1”) found this nurse sleeping, she sought out a different nurse to verify a medication dose. Somehow, word spread that this other younger nurse had reported said sleeping nurse. I was sitting on the unit with my preceptor, trying so hard to stay awake while going through new employee modules on the computer screen, when suddenly in through the conjoined unit door stomps the sleeping nurse. She began screaming (yes, screaming) about the new younger nurse. Expletives and threats were thrown out left and right, “just wait until they need help, let’s just see who jumps in. Sure, won’t be me!”. I could feel my blood pressure rising, my stomach dropping, this nurse was literally screaming so loudly that I could hear every word she was saying about my friend! My preceptor looked pale, quite possibly the look of complete and utter embarrassment, but she never said a word. She didn’t ask the nurse to lower her voice or to leave the room… nothing, she sat by silently consenting.

When my break approached, I quickly gathered my lunch and went to find my friend. I had to tell her what had happened, I had to prepare her! To my surprise, my friend was well aware of the slander that had reached my ear, because it had also reached every room on our unit. That was the pivoting point. The point where the whispers began to take over, slowly creeping down the hallways at night. That was when work wasn’t just about patient care anymore, it was about making it through the night without a bullying confrontation.

I began to learn that a napping nurse wasn’t all that uncommon. I remember watching a seasoned nurse dozing with a critical patient. I remember the fear coursing through me as I thought of all the things that could possibly go wrong, falling, aspirating, etc. I sat staring at this nurse, my heart racing. This was so wrong; didn’t she know better? I was terrified to say anything to her, especially since she was the scheduler. If I pissed her off, I could say goodbye to a tolerable schedule. There were rumors that feedings were skipped, then documented later, that patients weren’t checked, dressings not changed until 0600 when charting needed to be updated, because nurses were sleeping. Every night I worked I fell deeper and deeper into the abyss of disappointment.

My conscious could not withstand knowing the possibility that patients were not being monitored or cared for properly. It made my body ache with anger. I applied to this job to make a difference, to be a part of something bigger than myself. I knew in my soul that this was all wrong. Sleeping on the job was a fire able offense, yet supervisors seemed to brush the issue under the rug—a dirty little midnight secret.

After having multiple people telling me to forget it, including one of my preceptors, who said, “it’s time to move on”, I found myself working in an isolation room with my patient on one side and a ventilated patient on the other. I could hear the bells and whistles of the ventilator every so often. I could see the nurse on the other side, the light from their phone glowing on their face, closed eyes, relaxed breathing. The alarms began again, they didn’t flinch. After watching intently for what seemed like forever the nurse stirred, rubbed their eyes and attended to the patient.

That was it. I had had enough! My body quivered with anger and fear. I sent an email to my director. I had previously brought my concerns to my charge nurse, my supervisors, the director was my next move. It was 0300, and I sent the email describing what I had witnessed, that the only trained ventilator nurse in the room was asleep. That I felt uncomfortable because patient safety was at stake and my reports to supervisors didn’t seem to be changing the behavior. An hour later I had a reply, it was sent to myself and 5 supervisors on my floor. The email, that I had sent to the director in confidence, was shared with five other employees—I had been thrown under the bus.

My blood was boiling, my heart dove into my stomach, how could this happen? I was crying out for help, more specifically, help for my patients. I felt so betrayed. I could hardly breathe or see straight. I felt as though I had been thrown to the wolves, the supervisors weren’t going to be happy reading my complaint. An idea floated into my head, I was going to CC: the Director of Nursing. I was tired, absolutely fed up with being called names, of the whispers, rumors, degrading behaviors, and the nasty looks. I replied to my floor director, all of the supervisors, and the hospital nursing director. I expressed my concern that my confidential email was shared with multiple people without my permission. I explained that my concerns were valid, that change needed to happen, and that as the director of the floor, they were indeed RESPONSIBLE.

I wasn’t going to back down, I couldn’t now. It was too important. There were too many issues, none of it could be forgotten, these patients deserved better, safer, care! I waited for what seemed like forever for a reply—from anyone.

Finally I received an email from the director of nursing, a simple— “thank you for including me in this.” Someone had finally heard me, someone really heard me! It felt like maybe, just maybe, with the DON involved my dreams to work on this floor, with this population, could still become a reality.

But the bullying only progressed, while my anxiety became heavier and heavier. I would cry incessantly driving to and from work. I had headaches, all I wanted to do was sleep. I dreaded putting my uniform on. I loathed sitting to get my assignment at the beginning of my shift, loathed hearing who I’d be partnered with. I was quiet, scared, and isolated. I tried as best I could to get lost in my patients and the care I was providing—but so many times my focus would shift to feeling like everyone was out to get me, or my friend for that matter.

I remember one night, working the same shift as my friend “Thing 1.” She was in a separate room from me, with some of the dreaded nurses from the Retention and Recruitment Committee. A patient’s alarms began to ring, my friend ran to stimulate the patient to check their status and was quickly shoved into the wall by another nurse! “Don’t you dare lay a finger on my patient!” My friend, in shock, told the nurse to take their hands off them!

My counterpart, Thing 1, stood in the doorway, signaling for me to come out to the hallway. That’s when it was shared that she had just been assaulted in a patient’s room, by another nurse. My rage was overwhelming. I could not believe that someone had the audacity to physically shove a coworker, as they were trying to help a patient no less. My friend asked me to be their witness when they went to report the occurrence to our supervisor. They no longer felt safe talking with supervisors alone, which was a mutual feeling. Supervisors were a part of the bullying, taking part in the slander, the rumors, the name calling. How were we expected to trust anyone?

We stood in the hallway, the supervisor met us, looking annoyed already. Folding their arms across a clipboard on their chest. My friend explained what happened, named the nurses that were present, the offender. Our supervisor looked us dead in the face and said, “You should have pushed them back, what do you expect me to do about it now!?”

I couldn’t hold back any longer, “You have GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.” My supervisors’ eyes grew two sizes I swear. I was never one to talk back, but this was outrageous. “You’re telling us that violence fixes violence!? The cops should have been called is what you’re telling me? Because you are incapable of handling it or giving a tangible option to take care of this issue? Absolutely asinine. I’m in shock.” I threw my hands in the air, completely fed up with this unit, these supervisors, these bullies, that all stood shoulder to shoulder with each other. I grabbed my friend and we walked off the floor for a much-needed caffeine break.

We spent several nights hiding out in the hospital, finding areas to eat and study hospital protocols and procedures. Reading about sleeping, lateral violence, and retaliation. All these policies stated that there was zero tolerance for these offenses—yet here we were… highlighting them so that we could take them to our floor director to remind them of the rules that were being broken.

We wrote down firsthand accounts, dates, and times. We explained how our peers and even preceptors had warned us to, “drop it…it isn’t a big deal.” I remember them telling us we were, “causing drama, trouble, and just needed to go.”

We had meeting upon meeting with the DON. We would cry to them, both so frustrated, unable to explain how traumatic and disappointing it was. I felt so defeated and heart broken. My dreams were going up in flames all around me. I had wanted this job so badly. I had dreams of flourishing in this niche and becoming an integral part of the team. I wanted to do great things but this environment was toxic.

After five months of fighting, we turned in our highlighted policies and procedures to our floor director and the DON. With shaking voices, we reviewed all the insults we had experienced and witnessed. That quickly sprung up a phone call from Human Resources on the way home the next morning. One of the incidents finally caught someone’s attention. We had confidential meetings scheduled with HR. It all was nerve wrecking. I couldn’t believe the wheels were finally turning. Change could be coming!

After the meetings (which left neither one of us very impressed) we were told not to meet with our floor director without the DON present. That there would be a review of everything that was discussed, and actions would follow if necessary. Our next shift, we clung close to each other, keeping ears open, waiting for the other foot to drop. Something was about to happen, we could feel it, like the eerie calm before the storm.

As our shift came to a close, we, “Thing 1 and Thing 2”, quickly gathered our things, and gave report. We were then informed that there was a mandatory meeting to go over policies and procedures. All nurses would need to rotate through and attend within the next 72 hours. We looked at each other terrified and booked it as quickly as we could. As we were driving home together, a text came buzzing through from one of our allies. It stated that our director, walked into the first-round meet and was promptly escorted out of the room by security. The DON then went over the policies and procedures we had highlighted. Stating that if anyone were to be caught sleeping on the job, they would be given their final warning. There were discussions about bullying and retaliation. Everyone in that room signed policies stating they understood the consequences of their behaviors. We both started tearing up. We had done it. Two brand new nurses had had their voices heard. We had accomplished change! We had climbed the ladder, we had done everything in our power to shed light on the darkness of the floor.

Immediately following, an intermediate director was named and we were told it was time for our reviews. My review was horrible. I had negative comments from my peers. The intermediate director had me sign my review, even though I refuted its contents. No plans were made for improvement, I was told I needed to work on my peer relationships, needed to attend outings—that the Retention and Recruitment Committee had planned. I don’t think I have ever felt so low, disrespected, belittled, and attacked.

The unit continued its whispers and my drive to make this thing I once wanted so badly to work, died. I raised my white flag after six months of pain. I reached out to my director at my previous hospital, where I had been a technician for 7 years. I told them that I was miserable, that I wanted to come back. Luckily, there was an open night’s position, and they told me it had my name on it. It took me less than two seconds to accept. They helped organize an immediate transfer and within a week I was back “home.”

It has taken countless years for me to put into words what happened and to try and navigate the flood of emotions: anger, resentment, and disappointment that I have held onto all these years. I can say now after having time to grow as a nurse and process these traumatic events, I have no regrets. I have no more intrusive thoughts telling me I did wrong by protecting my patients. The anger that once burned hot has shifted into passion and drive—drive to protect new nurses, drive to support my coworkers, and drive to ensure all patients are being safely cared for.


Author: Tami Strzelecki BSN, RN

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