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Violence against health care workers? Full stop

The fury released today on utterly exhausted health care workers who are only doing their jobs makes me think about how the hell society became this utterly warped.

Nurse Kate Knepprath
Nurse Kate Knepprath dons PPE as she prepares to enter the room of a coronavirus disease patient being treated at UW Health University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
REUTERS/Daniel Acker

Since the pandemic’s beginning, I’ve thought a good deal about some of the jobs I’ve had in my career. When I hear about violence directed against teachers and school board members, I look back to issues I wrote about as a speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Though I never remember covering anything like this current violence. When I see how flight attendants are being attacked by passengers, I think of my time as a Northwest Airlines spokesperson. Though I don’t recall having to handle anything the like of which we hear about on a nearly daily basis on planes throughout the country.

But given the death and illness this pandemic has delivered, I most often think of the years I spent as a University of Minnesota medical center spokesperson. I was at the center, then as now renowned for its work in organ and bone marrow transplantation, when nearly every transplant done was the subject of some type of news story.

When getting rid of Obamacare/the Affordable Care Act becomes a fighting topic, I think of the patients and patient families who had to raise tens of thousands of dollars to pay for procedures many insurance companies of the 1980s and ’90s did not cover. When I hear about people dying because they don’t receive proper treatment due to insufficient insurance coverage or finances, I think about the children I knew who were just too sick and died after their families found the means to allow them to receive transplants.

And today, seeing stories of violent attacks on health care professionals over masks, vaccines or whether or not people critically ill with COVID-19 require hospitalization, ventilators or medications other than those intended for livestock, I think about some of the more heated interactions doctors, nurses, admissions staff and I had with some patients and families.

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To be fair, none of the troubles I had or heard about rose to the level of lunacy of those now taking place at medical centers worldwide. But when I hear about mobs trying to keep health care workers from getting into hospitals or threatening them in their own homes, I think about the anger and frustration of the people I dealt with all those years ago. And how that sort of anger and frustration now looks not completely unreasonable in light of what is currently taking place.

The fraught confrontations I witnessed or knew about mostly concerned the money needed to obtain treatment. Or the need to obtain an organ. Or why a child was born with a disorder requiring transplantation hundreds or even thousands of miles from home. I particularly remember some families who wanted doctors to make a child’s medical condition sound either more dire or much more optimistic in order to maintain the flow of fundraising dollars and agitated television stories. Voices were raised but no fists, guns or knives. Some families were upset with me for not taking an active role in helping produce positive news stories. One father told me, “Listen baby, put more paint on and help us because you (meaning the hospital) will be getting the blood money we raise. Isn’t that your (expletive deleted) job, (another expletive deleted)?”

photo of article author
Photo by Aaron Fahrmann
Mary Stanik
Even though I was pretty young in those days, I knew most of the people I dealt with who faced the trifecta of no money or insurance, no donor organ, and no ability to have the surgery near home were not fundraising, health care or communications professionals. So many of the families I worked with had been absolutely slammed by too many of life’s miseries and injustices and nowhere near enough of its glories and joys. Even though I didn’t like what some of them said to me (and especially to the doctors and nurses who were doing more than one thought possible to save the life of their loved one), I understood at least some of their fury. I knew their chosen expression of that fury wasn’t doing them much good but I knew they were angry about things that weren’t entirely unworthy of at least some measure of wrath.

The fury released today on utterly exhausted health care workers who are only doing their jobs in enforcing laws intended to protect public health or employing the best technology available to save lives, lives that one day might include those espousing such violence makes me think about how the hell society became this utterly warped. And about how much worse things might get should an even more dangerous pandemic hit one day.

One doctor I respected once told me when I was upset about getting screamed at that “as long as these people don’t get truly violent, let’s let them be angry. It’s when they go beyond yelling that we’ll have real trouble.”

We have real trouble now. And it needs to stop.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, recently moved from St. Paul to Arizona. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”