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Why nurses at DMC Sinai-Grace walked away from their jobs Sunday night

Luis Melendez for Unsplash.com

Nurses working the night shift at a Detroit hospital staged a sit-in late Sunday to protest what they say are dangerously low staffing levels in the ER.

The nurses say they were asked to leave the hospital, Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace, as a result.

Just before midnight, one nurse, Sal Hadwan, went on Facebook liveas he and his coworkers were walking out.

“Sinai-Grace is like the epicenter of this coronavirus,” Hadwan said. “We’ve had three straight weeks of over 110 patients and an average of 12 to 14 nurses. At night, that drops down to about eight nurses. We’ve been accepting that and working hard. But tonight was the breaking point. Because we cannot safely take care of your loved ones out here, with just six, seven nurses and multiple vents, multiple drips.

"We had two nurses the other day who had 26 patients with 10 vents. Two vents. 26 patients and 10 vents and nobody was out here to help. It's not acceptable."

“Unacceptable!” another nurse calls from the background. “We want the public to know we’re fighting for y’all and y’alls loved ones.”

"We know this is a very challenging time for caregivers,” DMC spokesperson Brian Taylor said in an emailed statement. “Our doctors and nurses continue to demonstrate their commitment and dedication to our patients. We are disappointed that last night a very small number of nurses at Sinai Grace Hospital staged a work stoppage in the hospital refusing to care for patients. Despite this, our patients continued to receive the care they needed as other dedicated nurses stepped in to provide care.”

A pandemic pushes a strained ER close to the breaking point

But other Sinai-Grace staffers say nurse shortages and high turnover have been a problem at the hospital long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now this virus has only exacerbated those issues.

One staffer described it as a “dumping ground” for patients, because other floors (like the Intensive Care Unit) are already full and refusing to take the patients until a bed opens up.

“So basically, the floors, they have the right to refuse [to take the patient.] So say if they’re up to so many patients, they can say, ‘I’m not taking them, there aren’t enough nurses.’ At the ER, we...have to take care of you. We have to keep going.”

Two staffers said patients are spending up to four or five days on ventilators, just waiting in the ER. More and more stretchers are lining up in the hallways, some hooked up to makeshift tubing connected to wall-mounted oxygen valves.

(We’re not naming these healthcare workers because they still work at Sinai-Grace and don’t want to get in trouble.)

“I mean with this COVID, people are dropping like flies,” one ER staffer said. “Just when you think they’re ok, the next moment you’re intubating and another one is in critical care. Everyone’s critical. There are 10 to 12 [patients on ventilators] for a couple nurses.”

It’s putting patients at risk, this staffer says.

“If you need water, if you’re soiled and can’t be changed, if you need a blanket or to get in contact with your family members, we don’t have time. We’re so busy trying to keep our intubated patients stable, making sure their hearts don’t stop. It’s not fair, but it’s survival of the fittest for the patients. If that was my mom or dad, that moment would bring me to tears.”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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