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Claiming our rights

By: Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN

The pandemic has cast a spotlight on human rights.

leah curtin executive editor professional outreach american nurse journalAccording to CNN, the night-shift emergency department (ED) nurses at a Detroit hospital reached a tipping point in the COVID-19 pandemic when they refused to leave the break room until hospital administrators provided more nurses to help care for patients. In a video, one nurse said, “Tonight was the breaking point because we cannot safely take care of your loved ones with just six, seven nurses and multiple [ventilators] and multiple people on drips. It’s not right. We had two nurses the other day who had 26 patients with 10 [ventilators].” After 4 hours of deliberation, hospital administrators informed the group they would not be bringing in any more help and the nurses could either return to work or leave the hospital.

The concept of human rights comes alive only when it is applied to specific people and specific situations. What are the human rights of the nurses—and the patients—in this situation? A society is a collection of individuals; its value system reflects the values held by its members. And the citizens’ response to personal duties affects the value that the nation places on responsibility. Healthcare professionals freely assume additional duties toward others when they enter their professions. However, they can’t care for an unlimited number of people. They also have a responsibility to give reasonably safe care under the circumstances. The circumstances in this ED far exceeded safety and accountability. The staffing was beyond abysmal, placing the very fragile lives of the patients in danger.

Can two nurses adequately care (no one is talking here about good or quality) for 26 very ill patients of whom 10 are on ventilators, especially in an ED with no idea how many more patients will arrive? What say you, colleagues? Is this possible?

Although human rights provide the foundation for all relationships, duties provide form for each relationship. And this situation bends that form out of all recognition. It is, indeed, the role-related duty of those who choose to work in healthcare to care for the sick, even if the disease is contagious. However, employers have a duty to provide adequate—not good, certainly not quality—staffing even in these admittedly awful circumstances. If the lives of patients are no incentive, what is?

The sad part of this story is that more nurses were available; the next night the hospital hired four agency nurses to supplement staffing. The worst part is that hospital functionaries decided to send home what little staff they had and to bully the day staff into working a 24-hour shift. Apparently, this was a power struggle with nurses and patients as the cannon fodder.

Employers have responsibilities, too, including duties associated with management prerogatives. Fulfilling those responsibilities is the price of leadership. The nurses didn’t abandon their duties, leadership did.

leah curtin registered nurse faan



Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN, Executive Editor, Professional Outreach,
American Nurse Journal


Murphy PP, Young R, Carpenter J. Detroit hospital nurses refuse to work without more help, ordered to leave. CNN. April 8, 2020.

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