Nurses Understaffed, overworked at Christus St. Vincent

The nurses are so stressed out at Santa Fe’s only major hospital. I got a chance to talk with several who work at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, and the conversation was sobering. They said Christus doesn’t staff well enough, meaning there aren’t enough nurses per shift to give patients the time they need to get better. Think about it: If a nurse is responsible for five or six patients at one time, that means each patient can only get about 10 or 12 minutes of attention per hour. (One nurse said she’s had to take care of 12 patients at once.)

Some people wind up stuck in their hospital beds because they need help to sit up or walk to the bathroom, and a nurse juggling too many patients might be needed for a serious case elsewhere. 

“Patients are getting half the care they once had,” one nurse said. “Sometimes they don’t get the care they need.”

“The last two years I’ve felt like I’m in a war zone. The stress level….” said another, trailing off.

Unionized nurses tried and failed to address the staffing problem during brutal collective bargaining negotiations last year. At the last legislative session, Rep. Brian Egolf managed to pass a memorial to bring about a study on staffing levels in New Mexico’s hospitals. 

But this is a problem that needs fixing now. Turnover among nurses at St. Vincent’s is ridiculously high – at least 25 percent, and as high as 75 percent in some units, nurses say. A lot of experienced nurses have left since Christus took over the hospital in 2008, and many who remain speak of being afraid every day at work, because at some point this problem is going to tip over into a terrible injury for some patient who won’t wait for help to get out of bed and winds up with a broken hip or a head injury because of a fall. Someone might die because a nurse can’t provide the necessary attention. 

“People leave because they don’t want to be put into a situation where they’re gonna hurt a patient,” said one nurse.

They’re afraid of getting fired, too, for something trivial like a recording error, because management at St. Vincent’s has a contentious relationship with its increasingly frustrated nurses. 

St. Vincent’s has seen its budget shrink in recent years, because Santa Fe County couldn’t contribute as much as it has in the past and because the federal government, likewise, is cutting back on its contributions. The response has been to cut staff, so nurses who are already taxed by their patient loads are also having to take time to discharge patients, or track down supplies a patient needs. Supplies are an issue, too. St. Vincent’s doesn’t stay stocked, a former nurse there said, and sometimes alcohol wipes or syringes or bed pans are scarce.

“These things should just be there,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be a nurse’s concern. Continuously, one supply or another has to be hunted down. That’s time wasted.”

This is the result of a corporate mentality, where money rules. The nurses don’t say these things for fun, or because of some personal beef with the brass at their hospital. They’re saying these things because they need help and they aren’t getting it. Christus bosses say over and over that they are motivated to do what’s best for the community; if that were true, though, they would pay for more nurses. Instead, they bought a new hospital in Santa Fe – the Physicians Medical Center, which specializes in orthopedic surgery – and pay salaries of six figures (almost seven figures, for some) to their top dogs. 

I once asked the hospital’s CEO Alex Valdez whether it was fair for someone making more than $600,000 to be citing budget cuts as the reason his hospital needed to take a hard line against the nurses in their effort to improve staffing. He wouldn’t answer, and his spokesman said Valdez’s salary is in the middle range of what CEOs at similar hospitals make in this country. That is supposed to end the conversation: “I may make tons of cash running a cash-strapped hospital, but other people in the same job make even more than me, so it’s all right.” 

It is insane that so much money at a hospital goes to management, while stressed-out nurses aren’t able to give patients more than a few minutes out of every hour. This is partly why ISPAC continues covering the effort by the Martinez administration to privatize public education: Some things should not be run like a business. Educating kids should not be about management making a profit, and neither should taking care of sick people. Because what happens is Christus St. Vincent, where the nurses are miserable and the top brass doesn’t care. 

“I’ve never seen such unhappiness,” said one nurse. “It’s patients’ families and the nurses…. I’d rather be busy on my shift, but I see patients who aren’t taken care of. Part of healing is psychological. We used to be a healing, community hospital, and that’s gone.”

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