Working as a nurse can be traumatizing. According to the National Institute of Health, post-traumatic stress disorder is found in approximately 29% of all ICU nurses, which can last for years on end and even lead to disability in some extreme cases. Low pay, long hours, and staff shortages have only compounded the crisis.
And lawmakers in Washington state have proposed a bill that would provide workers’ compensation insurance coverage for nurses with PTSD, similar to a 2018 law that provides workers’ PTSD compensation to firefighters and police officers.
Annika Hoogestraat testified that working as a nurse for the last two decades has exposed her to innumerable extreme situations not unlike those found in war.
“We watch people die in front of us and resuscitate them. It can be violent, bloody, and gory,” said Hoogestraat, a charge nurse in the cardiac ICU at Seattle Children’s. “You learn to adapt, remove yourself from the situation and go into autopilot, but repeated traumas like that really do take a toll.”
The bill, SB 5454, is sponsored by state Senator Annette Cleveland, who said nurses are still facing mental health issues due to the intensity of the job.
“While many of us believe the pandemic is behind us and have moved on, these individuals continue to see the impacts, every day,” Cleveland said.
The Washington Hospital Association has endorsed the bill but requested an amendment to include insurance coverage only for nurses in the emergency department, ICU, and flight nurses that cared for patients during the pandemic.
PTSD can feature various symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and hopelessness, but it can also lead to recurring nightmares and flashbacks that leave nurses feeling numb and emotionally detached.
David Jacob Garcia, a registered nurse in a critical access hospital in Sunnyside, WA, said he believes the bill will help retain and recruit more nurses. He has seen many more experienced nurses leave the bedside since becoming a nurse in 2016.
Nurses are arguably exposed to just as much trauma as police and firefighters, but they are not employees of the state. They mostly work for private companies with their own internal policies regarding mental health care and worker’s compensation insurance.
“It feels like it should be a no-brainer,” Garcia said. “It’s super important for us to be able to expand workers’ compensation for PTSD to make sure that nurses can get the care if they need it.”
Ada Van Landingham, who had been a staff nurse at Seattle Children’s for two years, said she recently left the overnight shift at the hospital to become a travel nurse because it was starting to affect her mental health. She now works 12-week contracts and can take a break in between assignments to give herself more time to recover.
“I worked for 12 weeks, made a lot of money and took a two-week break and traveled to Thailand,” Van Landingham said. “Then I went back to work for another 12 weeks.”
She now makes twice the hourly rate she used to make as a registered nurse, but the trade-offs include not having health insurance or paid time off.
“I can take time off to decompress,” she said. “It’s not for everyone, but most of the younger nurses think it doesn’t make sense not to be one.”
Van Landingham agreed that having PTSD workers’ compensation would be nice, but she’s not sure if it would be enough to convince her to go back to a full-time position at the hospital.
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