It was during the height of the Gulf War. I am a registered nurse who was assigned to the triage desk, where I sorted out which patients needed to be seen urgently. It was about 2:30 a.m. in a normally busy inner-city hospital emergency department here in Washington. I was working by myself.
It was unusually quiet. The waiting room was empty. The security office, which faced the triage desk, was also empty. I didn’t know at the time that hospital security officers were with the local police department in the pediatric section of the emergency department, dealing with a teenage gang-violence victim.
The doors swung open, and a disheveled-looking guy walked up to the triage desk where I was sitting. One look at him and I thought something was not right.
Suddenly he pulled out a switchblade knife with a sharp, pointed blade and started waving it in front of my face. He screamed, “I don’t want to hurt you, honey, I just want you to release all the POWs in Vietnam!”
I was too scared to move. He continued to yell about the POWs in Vietnam and wave the knife around. He had obvious psychiatric problems. I don’t think he knew what planet he was on.
I just happened to see two police officers and our security officers coming down the hallway together. I yelled out: “This man has a knife!”
The police were stunned at first, but then one of the officers saw the knife and sprang into action. The officers came running to my rescue and got between me and my would-be attacker. One of the police officers told me to leave. I went into the main emergency department and told the physician in charge what had just happened. I didn’t want anybody to go into the waiting room until the situation was under control.
The physician in charge went to look through a window into the waiting room because he had recently taken care of a patient with similar behavior. It was not the same man.
The next day I told the nurse manager what happened and asked for combat pay. I thought it was worth a try. The nurse manager had been a trauma nurse in Vietnam. But I did not get any extra pay. However, the nurse manager was concerned enough about safety to have panic alarms installed at the triage desk. They were out of sight under the desk.
This was before mass emails and texting. Even today, communicating with everyone working in a large, busy hospital is challenging. A few weeks later, another nurse was working at the triage desk. Her sweater caught on the white panic-alarm button and activated it. She had no idea what the button was for, and the alarm was silent. Imagine her surprise when a group of police officers stormed into the triage area with their guns drawn.
The police took the man with the knife to another hospital that had an inpatient psychiatric department. That psychiatric hospital tried to press our hospital for charges and fines for “patient dumping” but was unsuccessful.
The Federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, also known as the Patient Anti-Dumping Law, was passed in 1986 to prevent hospitals from refusing emergency care to low-income individuals. The hospital I was working at maintained that the man never requested care in the emergency department.
He only was there to demand the release of the POWs in Vietnam.
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