Nurses on the picket line

It makes sense that a 15-ounce infant on a ventilator needs a lot of care. And so does that baby’s parents.

“The mother needs us,” said 23-year nursing vet Jan Kingsley. “She’s scared to death that she’s going to lose her baby. She needs someone to talk to, someone to hold her hand.”

But that kind of compassionate nursing is disappearing, Kingsley said. Nurses nowadays race around trying to meet the needs of a dozen patients.

“They run around like crazy, can’t take care of everyone, can’t take lunch,” Kingsley said. “Once I worked six hours and realized I hadn’t had a chance to go to the bathroom. I mentioned that to my supervisor, and she said, ‘That’s just the way it is sometimes.’ “

Kingsley was one of hundreds of nurses and supporters who picketed Washoe Medical Center Tuesday during the Operating Engineers Local 3 strike. As required by law, Washoe Med was given a 10-day notice of the 24-hour strike, enough time for the hospital to hire replacement nurses from U.S. Nursing Corp., whose motto—"Call today, work tomorrow"—is an indicator of the firm’s commitment (or lack thereof) to quality, said Carin Franklin, a registered nurse who helped organize the strike.

Fliers distributed on the picket line listed several incidents of negligence associated with U.S. Nursing Corp., including a citation from the California Department of Health Services for 400 instances of nurses working without basic skills certification. Last year, according to the flier, a strikebreaking nurse at Stanford Medical Center was found dead in a California motel room after working 20 straight days.

In response to the one-day strike, Washoe Med locked its own nurses out for five days.

Losing a week’s wages isn’t something that Kingsley takes lightly. But she was encouraged by the community’s support during the picket.

“It feels good,” she said, taking a burrito break from the picket line Tuesday afternoon. Kingsley, a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Washoe Med, had been picketing since 6 a.m. “Every time we have a picket, it’s energizing. Then it falls off.”

Kingsley’s worked at Washoe Med for 16 years. And, though pay and benefits are things she’d like to see improved, the real problem is nurse-patient ratios. Kingsley said she’d like to see a system based less on head counts and more on the acuity of patient needs. Then, a patient like the 15-ounce infant wouldn’t be assigned to a nurse in charge of a dozen others.

Also, the current scene doesn’t bode well for the nation’s nursing shortage, Kingsley said. Nursing is a 24-7 gig. “You work holidays. They don’t pay well. They don’t treat you well. Then we tell young people, ‘Yeah, go into nursing.’ Like that’ll sell.”

Kingsley doesn’t have a big grudge against Washoe Med: “This is a great facility, but it has problems. Money and power are the bottom line. … We’re here for the people. We want to make our jobs better, and the care safer for patients.”

She sighed and scrunched up her empty burrito wrapper.

"It gets old not being able to."