In Tulsa, Okla., a 45-year-old patient angry over what he claimed was the pain he suffered after a back operation, bought a handgun and an assault rifle. He stormed into the office of his orthopedic surgeon, killing him, another doctor, a receptionist, and an office visitor, police say. The man then killed himself.
In Dayton, Ohio, a 30-year-old county jail inmate receiving care at a hospital wrestled with the 78-year-old contract guard accompanying him, fatally wounding him, threatening others, and finally killing himself.
The relentless spate of gun violence and multiple deaths has spread once again into settings designed to heal the sick and treat the injured.
The hospital attack has caused mourning in Tulsa’s medical community, in which the two doctors were well-known and respected: Preston Phillips, 59, was Harvard-trained and a rarity in his field, as a black orthopedic surgeon. He worked with nonprofits to provide medical assistance to the poor and needy in Africa. Stephanie Husen, an osteopath and specialist in sports medicine, was praised for her work in helping patients rehab after injury.
William Love, 73, and a retired Army first sergeant, was visiting the facility and was killed helping to protect others, including his wife of 54 years, during the brutal attack.
It also is part of what has been an objectionable, escalating trend — worsened during the coronavirus pandemic — of irrational fury by patients, protesters, and others in the public at health workers, as the American Hospital Association warned about and pleaded for help with in a March letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland:
“Hospitals and health systems have long had robust protocols in place to detect and deter violence against their team members. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, violence against hospital employees has markedly increased — and there is no sign it is receding. Studies indicate that 44% of nurses report experiencing physical violence and 68% report experiencing verbal abuse during the pandemic.
“News reports support these conclusions. To take just a few examples, a patient recently grabbed a nurse in Georgia by the wrist and kicked her in the ribs. A nurse in South Dakota was thrown against a wall and bitten by a patient. A medical student in New York who came from Thailand was called “China Virus,” kicked, and dragged to the ground, leaving her hands bleeding and legs bruised. The president of Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Michigan has reported: ‘Our staff are yelled at, punched, hit, scratched, we hear about these on a day-to-day basis.’ And a Maine nurse has said: ‘We have been hit, bitten, choked, shoved, kicked, spit upon, and concussed.’
“Workplace violence has severe consequences for the entire health care system. Not only does it cause physical and psychological injury for health care workers, but workplace violence and intimidation make it more difficult for nurses, doctors, and other clinical staff to provide quality patient care. Nurses and doctors cannot provide attentive care when they are afraid for their personal safety, distracted by disruptive patients and family members, or traumatized from prior violent interactions. In addition, violent interactions at health care facilities tie up valuable resources and can delay urgently needed care for other patients.”
The Associated Press, detailing how difficult it can be for hospitals to function if they must “harden” their facilities against weapons-carrying assailants, reported these distressing statistics:
“From 2000 to 2011, there were 154 hospital-related shootings, according to a 2017 guide from the International Association of Emergency Medical Services Chiefs that cited the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Nearly 60% of those shootings were inside hospitals, and around 40% were outside on hospital grounds, the guide said. The attacks resulted in 235 people wounded or killed, according to the guide, which also cited data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that indicated violence is four times more likely in health care than in other industries.”
When violence occurs in hospitals and clinics, health workers experience great risks, notably because they often cannot flee themselves and choose to stay with bed-ridden or immobile patients, sustaining their care and seeking to protect the vulnerable from harm. The institutions also deal already with situations involving stress to the extreme with patients, their loved ones, and others confronting trauma and life-and-death conditions.
The hostile climate affecting health care, however, has risen to extremes during the pandemic. Clinical staff and public health experts, initially hailed for their valor, soon became objects of scorn, threats, and intimidation. Health workers, exhausted and overwhelmed by trying to treat those with the disease, found themselves cursed, berated, shoved, hit, and threatened with physical harm. Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts and a spokesman on federal efforts to combat the coronavirus, experienced virulent personal attacks, required 24/6 security for himself and his family members due to threats against his life.
As the public outrage intensifies over the unending deadly mass shootings — including the racist murders of 10 people at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery and the slaughter of 19 fourth graders and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex. — gun advocates and Republican lawmakers have offered increasingly off-kilter responses. They have suggested “hardening” schools, so students and teachers in them, in effect, would be imprisoned in locked-down buildings purportedly for their own safety. They have suggested arming teachers, arguing that educators could take down crazed gunmen where trained law enforcement personnel could not.
They have gone silent as regular folks ask why killers so easily can buy weapons of warfare, including rifles that don’t just kill but destroy those shot by them, or how murderous extremists should have free access to clips that carry huge quantities of lethal ammo.
Is this the way we all want to live? In peril at church, the store, the movies, at the hospital, or in school or at the university? Do you want to be so sick that you need to be taken to a hospital, only to find when you get there that you must be subjected to a search more strenuous than what you experience at an airport? When you’re already upset and worried about a sick or injured loved one, are you ready to queue up for a weapons search at the clinic or hospital — even if your spouse or child, say, was in critical condition in an ER? When you’re getting treated at your doctor’s office, a clinic, or a hospital, do you want to go from one locked, guarded unit to another, with guards watching over you as if you were in a penitentiary?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing complexity, uncertainty, and cost of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous and bankrupting drugs.
Americans already spend trillions of dollars annually on health care, more than any other nation on the planet — all while seeing poorer outcomes than their peers in other advanced countries. If extremists, including obdurate Republicans, want to vilify health workers, put gun ownership above all else, and insist on a world of armed, supposedly secure fortresses, this will have significant added costs to the already brutally expensive U.S. health system.
Or we could stop the hollering, find common ground, protect Second Amendment rights and people’s lives with real, workable, effective measures to stop gun slaughter. We have much work to do.