EDIT: I want to say first, this, before I tell the story of how my mother stopped bullying by doctors in an entire state mental hospital: I am hoping that people who feel helpless to stop a bully will stand next to a victim in silent support when they see it going on. Even one person standing, as a silent witness, next to the victim, can stop a bully. I know. I have done it.
I learned it from my mother.
Silent Witnessing is something I credit my mother for. She worked as a nurse at the state mental hospital in the 1970′s, when doctors were known to openly berate and bully nurses on the wards, in front of mentally ill patients and staff who were working. The patients on her ward were elderly mentally ill patients.
State mental hospital work for nurses was brutal in the 1970′s. The hospitals were understaffed, the staff were underpaid, and the state mental hospitals were often the last refuge for doctors who couldn’t make it in “real” hospitals. Newer drugs that stopped the inner voices and hallucinations were not invented yet.
In the hospital, alerts were coded by color. A Purple Alert was a patient who was getting violent, and it brought the orderlies, all large and male, running, to restrain the patient to prevent them from hurting themselves, staff or another patient. A Blue Alert was a medical emergency.
My mother invented a new one: “Pink Alert.”
One particular doctor on the ward was the worst bully of the doctors who bullied. He was especially vicious when he was caught in a mistake. Then he would find a nurse to blame and bully.
These doctor tantrums would agitate those poor old patients, who were mostly schizophrenic, paranoid, and suffering from dementia as well. This was before the invention of drugs that controlled or stopped the inner voices and hallucinations. Every time this doctor pulled went on a bullying rampage, the patients would be agitated all day. My mother and other nurses on the ward often ended up getting hit by patients, who could be very strong during a psychotic break, even as old as they were. I remember her bruises, and how they upset me.
Orderlies would be busy all day wrestling patients, who then had to be sedated with Thorazine, a powerful sedative that would immobilize them. Often these frail patients would get hurt as they struggled.
The experienced nurses corrected “Doctor Bully’s” mistakes quietly. Newer nurses didn’t always get warned in the hectic pace and the many staff turnovers. It was a common saying among the nurses that some of these doctors were “on the wrong side of the keys.”
I will describe it to you as my mother described it to me:
“Dr. Bully” would shout, call the nurse a “dumb bitch,” incompetent, ugly, fat, whatever vile things he could. This could go on for quite a long time, according to mom and the nurses who worked with her. But my mother had been thinking about it, and inspired by the color code alerts, she made a plan, and shared it with her fellow nurses in one of their after-work get-togethers. They named it “Pink Alert.” The majority of these nurses were women, thus the color pink. The nurses talked over with my mother, agreed on the action plan, and waited. It wasn’t long.
About a week later, “Dr. Bully” started unloading on a nurse at the top of his voice, in the middle of the ward, center stage in the dayroom where patients were staring at the fuzzy TV or muttering to themselves, many of them rocking back and forth under heavy Thorazine medication. These episodes also played out in front the staff working behind Plexiglass windows who were preparing medications.
Most days there were eight or nine nurses working on this huge ward, attending patients in their rooms and supervising the day room.
As Dr. Bully started in on this young nurse, the “Pink Alert” was sounded, whispered from nurse to nurse, up and down the halls.
One by one, they stopped what they were doing, came and stood silently next to Dr. Bully’s victim, until nearly all the nurses on the ward were standing by her, facing Dr. Bully.
Silently witnessing the bellowing and top-of-the-voice abuse.
Like waking up from a dream, Dr. Bully slowly became aware of the “audience” of nurses, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder next to his victim. All watching him. Silently.
In fact, everyone on the ward was watching him. He saw himself through their eyes, and it dawned on him what he must look like, out of control, his vile tirade the only sound on the open ward, echoing off the concrete walls.
He trailed off, and then, stopped.
And walked away.
I don’t know how many “Pink Alerts” it took to get that bully in line, and the other doctors who bullied nurses in the same way.
But stop they did. None of those doctors, once they experienced Pink Alert wanted to experience it again.
Peace was restored to the ward.
The practice of Pink Alert spread from ward to ward, throughout the hospital.
I remember my mom talking about it with her shift buddies, who often came to our house for an after-work beer and decompression session. Doctor Bully had gone to the administration to complain that the nurses had “organized against him,” and he wanted the administration to write them warnings for “insubordination.”
Oh, my mom’s gang had fun with that. Of course “Pink Alert” was big news on the hospital grapevine, and it relieved the administration of a huge problem. They couldn’t afford to lose doctors, who were the only ones outside of the overworked psychiatrists who could write prescriptions or order medical treatment. They hadn’t been able to find an effective way to stop doctors from bullying the nurses, or stop the constant turnover of nurses that resulted from this bullying.
The administration had even started training nurses in pharmaceutical skills and teaching psychology courses to gain them special licenses, the beginnings of the ARNP licensed medical workers you often visit today (instead of a doctor) to empower these skilled nurses who worked day-to-day with the patients and knew their issues.
Of course, the hospital grapevine had picked up the attempt to sanction the nurses with “insubordination.” I still remember the talk and laughter around mom’s kitchen table.
“Can you imagine THAT conversation?”
They acted out the encounter as they imagined it:
“So, I was screaming at Nurse Jones…”
“And what did she say?”
“Nothing, but then all the nurses came over…”
“And what did they do?”
“Nothing, well, they STOOD there, and…”
“And what did they say?”
“Well, nothing, but they STOOD there…”
“What did YOU say?”
“I, uh, well, I told them to go back to work.”
“Well, yeah, but…”
The bottom line is, “Silently Witnessing” -gathering people to silently stand next to a victim who is being verbally abused or threatened -is a very effective tool.
It should be taught in schools.
EDIT: if you have ever been bullied, please share.