PULLMAN, Wash. — Nurses and staff members at Pullman Regional Hospital expressed disappointment with Washington state Sen. Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) following the lawmaker's viral comments about nurses at rural hospitals.
Walsh's remarks came following debate about a bill that would mandate uninterrupted meal and rest breaks for some healthcare workers.
While arguing for an amendment to exclude smaller facilities, Walsh said that the proposed changes would make it difficult for rural hospitals to remain open.
"I would submit to you that those [small hospital] nurses probably do get breaks," Walsh said. "They probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day."
Walsh, a Republican from Walla Walla, has since apologized for the statement.
"I was tired, and in the heat of argument on the Senate floor, I said some things about nurses that were taken out of context – but still they crossed the line," she said in a statement.
Still, some nurses expressed concern over potential fallout from Walsh's remarks.
"I was very disappointed. It came from the basis of not knowing what nurses do. I felt it was very disrespectful," said Janine Lawrence, a registered nurse at Pullman Regional.
Lawrence noted that herself and several other RNs at the hospital are constantly busy and often fill in with other departments at the hospital.
"[Walsh] doesn't know the truth. The truth is we're busy. The truth is, we flex everywhere," she said.
Tom Heward, another nurse at Pullman Regional, worried that some members of the public may start questioning nurse and physician workloads at smaller hospitals.
"I feel like rural nursing is a lot more difficult than other hospitals because of the triage teams and the different specialties that [staff] have available at larger facilities that we just don't have the ability to staff here," Heward said.
Heward noted that he had previously worked at rural hospitals even smaller than Pullman Regional. While patient numbers would fluctuate at those hospitals, Heward said he often stayed busy.
Pullman Regional, a level 4 trauma center, has 25 patient beds, four operating rooms and 24-hour emergency care. The hospital is staffed by 136 nurses.
In addition to her comments, Walsh also offered an amendment that would include an 8-hour limit on workdays for nurses. Walsh previously said she did not expect the amendment to pass.
“Frankly, I was really trying to make a point with that amendment,” Walsh explained.
She said the nurse’s union should be able to negotiate breaks and suggested if nurses are tired, they shouldn’t be allowed to work longer than eight hours.
Jeannie Eylar, the Chief Clinical Officer at Pullman Regional, expressed concern with Walsh's amendment.
"We've been following all of this legislation pretty closely," Eylar said. "The 8-hour limitation every 24 hours for nurses to work would be devastating to patient care across the state."
Eylar argued that mandating shorter shifts would increase the probability of errors and not allow nurses to spend extended periods of time with a patient.
Eylar said that existing state labor laws already address breaks for healthcare workers.
"I've gotten a lot of pretty angry nurses. Senator Walsh kind of blew it. I think she kind of ruined her credibility with nurses across the state," Eylar said.
Lawrence, when asked if she has ever spotted any coworkers playing "cards," as Walsh alluded to in her statement, the nurse responded with an emphatic "no."
"But all of the sudden, UNO! cards are populating everywhere as a joke. But it's a very sensitive subject with all of us right now," Lawrence said.