Many of us have already heard the story of the Utah nurse who was wrongfully handcuffed and detained by police while standing her ground in defense of the rights of a comatose patient. Nurse Alex Wubbels was calmly and simply doing her job when she refused officers’ demands for blood to be drawn without a warrant or patient consent. Would you have stuck to your guns like Ms. Wubbels?
In a recent blog post about the incident, I wrote:
According to Wubbels’ account and police body cam and hospital security camera footage, police officers came to the unit and demanded that the patient’s blood be drawn as part of their investigation.
Wubbels, being a well-prepared and astute nurse, informed the officers that a hospital policy created in coordination with the Salt Lake City Police Department states very clearly that procedures such as blood draws cannot be performed on comatose or unconscious patients without a warrant. She printed the policy and handed it to the officer.
(Of note, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that blood tests demanded by police without an appropriate warrant is contrary to privacy interests and public safety. Since that decision, such blood tests are forbidden without a warrant.)
Either oblivious to the policy and Supreme Court decision or simply hell bent on getting what he wanted, the officer proceeded to verbally bully Wubbels, shortly thereafter handcuffing her and escorting her from the hospital to a squad car as she screamed that she was innocent of any wrongdoing. She was wrongfully detained in the hot police car for 20 minutes and eventually released. News coverage and outrage from the nursing community subsequently exploded across the country.
The ANA condemned the incident in forceful language:
The American Nurses Association (ANA) is outraged that a registered nurse was handcuffed and arrested by a police officer for following her hospital’s policy and the law, and is calling for the Salt Lake City Police Department to conduct a full investigation, make amends to the nurse, and take action to prevent future abuses.
“It is outrageous and unacceptable that a nurse should be treated in this way for following her professional duty to advocate on behalf of the patient as well as following the policies of her employer and the law,” said ANA President Pam Cipriano, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN.
According to the Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements, “the nurse promotes, advocates for, and protects the rights, health, and safety of the patient.”
Unfortunately, nurses often are victims of violence on the job.
In 2015, ANA adopted a policy of “zero tolerance” for workplace violence and called on nurses and their employers to work together to prevent and reduce the incidence of workplace violence.
“Nurses and police officers work collaboratively in many communities,” said Cipriano.
“What occurred is simply outrageous and unacceptable. Nurse Wubbels did everything right. It is imperative that law enforcement and nursing professionals respect each other and resolve conflicts through dialogue and due process.”
In light of the fraught relationship between the police and people of color in this country, I just want to point out that we have no idea how this incident may have played out if Nurse Wubbels was a person of color. Would she have been treated differently by the officers? Would she have suffered more than just being detained in the police cruiser? I wrote the following in the aforementioned blog post:
We are in a historic time in history when increasing attention is being rightfully paid to issues of police brutality and the unwarranted and unconscionable killing of unarmed African Americans in this country. Add to this the emboldened white nationalist movement and apparently growing divisions in the United States over issues of race, immigration, and who does or does not belong, and it is a volatile mix, indeed. Imagine how this situation may have been different if Wubbels was a nurse of color. Would the officers have treated her more roughly? Would the outrage over her treatment be as vehement? These are questions worth considering.
Know Your Rights
Joe Strummer of The Clash once sang “know your rights”, and he wasn’t kidding. Many musicians have cajoled their listeners to understand what their rights are and to be willing to stand up to authority and speak truth to power when the going gets tough.
What would you have done if you were in Nurse Wubbels’ position? Would you have known your facility’s policies and had the wherewithal to find the appropriate policy, print it up for the officers, call your supervisor for backup, and stood your ground as the officers bullied you to give in to their demands?
It is in the best interest of your nursing career and your license to be as familiar as humanly possible with the policies of your place of employment. If Wubbels’ circumstances have raised any doubts in your mind about what you would need to do in a similar situation, it’s imperative that you get some answers to your questions and concerns.
Here are some questions to ask yourself, your colleagues, and your nurse leaders:
- What agreements do we have with local law enforcement regarding patient testing, etc?
- Do you know your rights as a healthcare professional, especially in relation to interfacing with law enforcement?
- If inmates are brought to our facility for care, what are the issues I need to understand?
- If I am asked by law enforcement to perform a task that I feel is contrary to our facility’s rules regarding patient rights, who do I turn to for support?
- What guidelines are in place for employee interactions with law enforcement?
- Are inservices needs in order for nurses and other staff to feel prepared for such incidents?
- Have you or a colleague had a similar experience in the past? What can you learn from what happened then and what you know now? Would you have done anything differently?
- Was Nurse Wubbels reaction appropriate? Would you have handled it in another way?
Your Career and Your License
Your nursing career and the license you worked so hard to get are on the line every day. Every decision you make and every medication you administer potentially puts your license at risk.
Many of us have made mistakes in the course of providing nursing care, and it’s always frightening to think that our action might come back to bite us in the gluteus maximus.
Understanding where to draw the line and stand your ground is important. The Utah case provides us with a reminder of how vulnerable we can be, and how we nurses need to arm ourselves with the knowledge to protect our patients, our licenses, and our careers.
Do you have enough information and knowledge at your disposal to protect yourself and make prudent decisions under difficult and stressful circumstances? Will your employer have your back when the chips are down? Are your colleagues savvy enough to be your allies?
Nurses, it may be a cliche to say this, but if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. The case of Nurse Wubbels is a wake-up call for us nurses about the ways in which we collaborate with law enforcement and other entities; how facilities must educate staff on crucial policies; and how nurses must take responsibility for knowing their rights and how to protect the rights of the patients under their care.
We don’t need to march on Washington or the local government in order to make our voices heard, and we don’t need a pat on the head telling us that we’ve overreacted to Wubbels’ case. There is of course a backlash against Wubbels, but the ANA and others are standing their ground that this miscarriage of law enforcement is worthy of ongoing discussion and attention.
Nurses face the potential of bullying from nurse peers (lateral or horizontal violence), bullying and intimidation by physicians and other colleagues, as well as abuse and violence at the hands of patients and their families. If we also face bullying and intimidation by law enforcement while we tend to our patient care responsibilities, that is potentially the last straw. We have enough parties to contend with, and it’s up to us to understand how to defend ourselves and act in the interest of both our patients and the integrity of our nursing licenses.
What Would Wubbels Do?
Alex Wubbels is not a martyr, nor is she the leader of a burgeoning movement. She is a nurse whoknew what to do in a difficult situation, stuck to her guns, stood her ground, and was then unnecessarily and inappropriately intimidated and bullied by police with no regard for the rule of law and patient rights.
In the aftermath of the incident, Wubbels has been a model of restraint and graciousness, and she has responded with great aplomb and intelligence.
Nurses, use this incident as a marker for what can possibly happen and the choices you have in terms of your potential response. You can also use it as an example of what you still don’t know, and the policies, procedures, and rights that should be second nature to you in the interest if protecting your license and your patients. Ask your employer for information; learn what you need to know, and talk with colleagues about this important event that has much to teach us about our roles as nurses and citizens.
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Be well, dig deep, and keep in touch!
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind NurseKeith.com and the well-known blog, Digital Doorway.
Keith is co-host of RNFMRadio.com, a wildly popular nursing podcast; he also hosts The Nurse Keith Show, his own podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. Keith was previously the resident nursing career expert at Nurse.com.
A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of “Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century” and “Aspire to be Inspired: Creating a Nursing Career That Matters.”
He has also contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession, and has written for Nurse.org, Nurse.com, MultiViews News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, American Sentinel University, American Nurse Today, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online platforms.
Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, online nurse personality, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known successful nurse entrepreneur.