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Standing Her Ground

May 03, 2018

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This isn't scaring people away; it's making it more magnetizing and more exciting to be a nurse.

Alex Wubbels

In July 2017, University of Utah Hospital intensive care nurse Alex Wubbels was arrested for preventing a Salt Lake City police officer from taking an unwarranted blood sample from an unconscious patient. After a video of her rough arrest went viral, she was thrust into the media spotlight, hailed as a hero, spurred a change to the Utah blood draw law and ignited a national campaign to raise awareness about healthcare workplace violence.

Where do you work?

I work at the University of Utah as a burn trauma ICU nurse, burn ICU educator and member of our enteral feeding tube placement team.

You were an Olympic skier and competed in the 1998 Nagano and 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

Correct. I grew up in a ski town and instead of a babysitter we had a mountain and went skiing. I spent eight years on the national team and qualified for two Olympics. I’m also a U.S. national champion in giant slalom and slalom. That was my past life.

How did your Olympic experiences form who you are today?

More than anything it reinforced the concept of having passion for something — work ethic as well. You can’t just be good at something. You have to work for it. You can be the best in the world and not win a gold medal.

What fueled your passion to become a nurse?

As a professional skier, I worked with a sports psychologist. He gave me a test that matched personality with potential professional skills. The second he said nursing, I thought, “That’s what I’m going to be!”

What’s great about being a nurse?

Nursing to me is all about privilege. It’s the privilege of caring for someone in their most intimate moments, when they have fear and vulnerability, and trying to delicately manage that and help them through a scary time.

Tell us about “the incident.”

I’m so grateful to be a nurse. I think nursing is the toughest, most inclusive, caring and understanding profession in the world. Nurses reached out to me, not just within my state, region and country, but internationally. People want to make it about me, but it was about the patient and his rights fundamentally. That’s something that I don’t want to overlook. No nurse ever asks for a gold star. We’re not writing the orders — we’re providing the care. It solidified in me that I picked the right profession.

Were you prepared for it?

The aftermath I was not prepared for. [During the incident] I knew when to call and who to call. I also knew my organization would not let me down. They’re not going to put a policy out there that’s fundamentally flawed or illegal. Because of that, I was able to stand my ground. As a profession, we’re obligated — first and foremost, no matter what — to the safety of our patient. But, we’re also obligated to our license and profession. It was never clearer to me than during this incident that my obligations are parallel.

How did you cope in the aftermath?

It took two days to come down emotionally from the incident. I was on the phone with our newly developed Resiliency Center, completely crying, bawling. It was a very emotional letdown, and I recognized that I was now the patient and provider. I had to tell myself, “Alex, you need help. It’s OK to take some time off.” Part of me didn’t want to take time off, because that meant I’d have to deal with it.

Did you know how big this would be?

No. I had no idea. We [nurses] all have a very deep understanding as to what is right and wrong — a moral compass. Everything we do is for the sake of patient safety. That night, after I was released from handcuffs and being arrested, I said to my bosses, “I’m accountable. Tell me what I did wrong so I never do it again.” They said, “Alex, you did nothing wrong.” I felt like I had to have done something wrong to be treated like that. No one deserves to be treated like that when they’ve done nothing wrong.

Do you consider this an act of workplace violence?

I was at work, in my scrubs, had a badge on, dutifully protecting my patient. So, yes, technically it was workplace violence. Once I saw how often this happens — workplace violence and violence against nurses — I was comfortable and committed to the pledge that the ANA [American Nurses Association] helped write to stop nurse abuse. A lot of professions are dangerous, so when it comes to workplace violence for nursing, we should be the ones to prevent this and stop it. We have to stand up for ourselves, while keeping in mind that it’s not only about us. One of the things I’m most proud of out of all this was getting letters and posters from a kindergarten class in California; they all wanted to be nurses! It’s about instilling that trust that we have earned for so long and making it so worthy that people want to join our profession. This isn’t scaring people away; it’s making it more magnetizing and more exciting to be a nurse.

How has this impacted the way you practice now?

When it comes to the actual care I provide and the professionalism, I don’t think that has changed. It’s made what I do more meaningful. It’s stoked the fire. As nurses, there’s the constant ebb and flow of this immense amount of passion, drive and burnout. I’m empowered by this incident. I don’t want to be a half-ass woman standing there with my fist in the air trying to empower the rest of her profession to do what people in my profession already do every single day. From the very beginning, I could never have imagined the amount of support that poured out from nurses all over the world. It resonated with everyone, not just nurses, but nurses stood and took the flag and carried it. As the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, that’s what we do … we think critically, right? We’re constantly thinking outside the box about how to bring things to our profession, to our patients. In that critical care context, hopefully I can be successful in making sure this never happens to anyone again.

Three Lessons From Alex Wubbels’ Experience

In the aftermath of Alex Wubbels’ headline-grabbing arrest last summer for defending the rights of her unconscious patient, she ignited a national crusade to ensure such an event never happens again.

In her own words, here are three lessons from her harrowing experience:

For nurses: “Know your chain of command, and make sure your facility has a policy on how to handle the police’s unwarranted requests for patients’ blood samples. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t necessarily even have to know exactly what the policy says, but you should know that you have one and how to access it. Any nurse should know they’re empowered to stand up and commit to their own moral compass. And you should have the confidence to know that it’s in line with your profession and employer.”

For hospitals: “Make sure your institution’s policies are parallel and protect both the patient and the provider. When a nurse must make a splitsecond decision, in the heat of the moment when a potential life is on the line, they shouldn’t have to worry if they are going to lose their license or job for doing what’s right. Help nurses understand, long before they’re put in that position, that the policy in place is legitimate and lawful.”

For law enforcement: “We have to work together to provide care to those that can’t care for themselves or need assistance. We are public service defenders. We are here for our fellow citizens and for the benefit of society. We must figure out how to do that in a cohesive, holistic and compassionate way.”