Time heals, at its own pace

A young nurse injured in a harrowing workplace assault tells why ongoing workers’ compensation support – now under threat in New South Wales – can be vital to recovery.

Nineteen months after being attacked and stabbed by a patient, and seeing a colleague fatally wounded, mental health nurse Emily Pritchard continues to rely on workers’ compensation support for her rehabilitation.

Ongoing psychological counselling has been essential in helping the 21-year-old Endorsed Enrolled Nurse return to work and cope with the trauma of the attack in Orange on January 2, 2011.

“I wouldn’t have been able to set foot in the workplace again without workers’ compensation continuing to pay for psychologist sessions, which have been extremely helpful,” she says.

“Continuing to see a psychologist once a month really helps me to be able to keep going back to work, and to work through the issues I have after the incident.”

Injured nurses may be about to lose such support, with the New South Wales government moving to put a cap on medical expenses, and a time limit on payments. The current scheme, which covers 100% of a worker’s wage for 26 weeks, will be replaced by a system of stepped-down benefits after 13 weeks.

Emily was in the second year of her nursing career when a patient attacked her with two steak knives, partially severing the little finger on her right hand. Her life was saved when a courageous fellow nurse, Bob Fenwick, came to her rescue and was himself stabbed in the chest. Mr Fenwick, 63, died the following day.

Mr Fenwick was posthumously awarded the Star of Courage earlier this year, having been nominated by the NSWNA Mid Western Mental Health branch. A patient also received a bravery medal for helping the two nurses during the attack.

Emily underwent an operation to reattach ligaments, arteries and nerves in her hand. The surgery and physiotherapy succeeded in restoring movement but the nerves have not fully grown back, leaving her with only partial feeling down one side of her little finger.

In April 2011 she returned to work for three half-days a week, gradually building up to five days, “but only if I am up to doing it. I don’t sleep many nights so there are days when I can’t make it to work.

“Management has been very supportive with my return to work plan, and in paying my shifts even if I can’t come to work. I’m rostered as an extra on the ward so other staff are not put out if I’m not able to come in.”

Emily says having her wages and medical costs covered by workers’ compensation has been crucial, especially because she has an eight-month-old daughter to support.

“If nurses are no longer able to get their wages covered in full after an injury, then how are we meant to look after ourselves? How are we meant to survive, let alone pay for the cost of treatment and rehab?

“You can’t put a time limit on recovery. Some people never fully recover and need ongoing support for the rest of their lives. If they don’t get it how are they ever meant to go back to work?”

NSW Nurses’ Association Assistant General Secretary, Judith Kiejda, said Bob Fenwick’s death was the first death of a nurse at work in NSW since Sandra Hoare was murdered at Walgett Hospital in 1994. However a nurse at Blacktown Hospital’s psychiatric emergency care centre was brutally assaulted by a patient last October.

“Nurses, midwives and nursing assistants are particularly vulnerable to cuts to the workers’ compensation scheme because so many of them work in environments where there is an increased risk of injury,” Judith said. “These include emergency departments, mental health units, facilities within the criminal justice system, aged care where many residents suffer from dementia, and community care where nurses are required to attend patients’ homes alone.”