TENNESSEE (WJHL) – As of July 1, Tennessee law keeps those interacting with nurses in check by making the consequences more severe when an assault is committed against them.

Though this law only took effect this July, it is not the first of its kind. In 2013, Tennessee law protected nurses who were assaulted, but in 2020 during the special session, nurses were removed from the code.

Now, the law states that if a person knowingly causes physical contact with a nurse, they can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, face a mandatory fine of $5,000, and face a minimum sentence of 30 days in jail.

However, if they commit aggravated assault – that includes attempting to cause serious bodily harm or brandishing a weapon – they could now face a Class C felony, a mandatory fine of $15,000 and face a minimum sentence of 90 days in jail.

“I think it’s going to be so helpful. I mean, it truly tells us that people care, number one, and we do have so many different instances like demented patients that don’t understand what they’re doing, they may be yelling at you or hitting you or trying to escape the bed and they just don’t know,” Christina Parker, RN team coordinator for the ER at Hoston Valley Medical Center said.

Parker said psychiatric patients present issues and oftentimes, those situations get escalated quickly and they get more irritated by things and have to be treated in their own special way.

“But there are also people who just want to say, your mom and daddy raised you better than that, you know what I mean and they just belittle you. They yell at you, they think that they’re the only person that you have to take care of and they don’t understand how much else is going around. And so it’s, in particular those people I feel like that this may help that are going to look at you and say, I don’t care what I do I’m not going to get in trouble, you know, they can take me to jail I’ll get out and come back and just threats like that. So I hope that a more serious punishment would make them not be so easy to say things or do things that way,” she said.

Parker explained that nurses face all kinds of abuse every day.

“We can be yelled at, we can be spat at, we can be kicked and punched at, it is can be different day by day. A lot of people have a harder time with just truly being spoken down to. Myself, personally, you can punch and kick at me all day long, but if you make me feel this big and you just yell and scream and I feel like I can do nothing to help you or de-escalate the situation that’s what’s the most difficult to me personally, but we all handle things differently and we have a good team where we try to step in if it’s our strength and not our weakness and help out each other like that. But, violence and assault does come in multiple different ways you know it’s not always physical it can be verbal I mean there’s tons of different ways it can go,” she explained.

Being eight months pregnant, Parker said she faces additional obstacles every day.

“But as a team coordinator, it’s also my job to arrive in those situations and be present in those high stress, patients and make sure that I can help. So I’m always thinking about him before myself, staying back a little bit, just making sure that security is present, that nothing’s getting too difficult for something, you know, like that to happen, but always much more anxious now with a pregnancy, that I would be if I was just protecting myself,” she said.

Ballad Health leadership told us all staff undergoes de-escalation training – especially those who work in emergency and mental health care departments.

“So a couple of things we do first of all we teach de-escalation kind of education to all of our nurses, and tell them verbally, the things to say and the things that they can do to reduce the risk of someone getting really, really agitated and potentially lashing out.” Ballad Health Chief Nursing Officer Lisa Smithgall explained. “In addition to that, in certain parts of our facility, where there’s more risk of that like in our emergency departments or in our behavioral health region, even a more intense de-escalation training where they get not only verbal de-escalation but actual techniques to reduce the risk of violence to others. In addition to that, if you’re on the unit or in a patient care area and you perceive that someone is going to do something we have special codes they can call and there’s an emergency code that’s called overhead, and security will come and other people will come to that area to potentially help de-escalate that before anything happens.”

Smithgall told News Channel 11 that the community does not always know what nurses go through daily.

“We’ve had nurses who’ve had broken limbs, or have been, you know, a broken nose, or just injured in general and knocked to the ground, and it’s really unfortunate that it happens in the healthcare environment,” she said.

According to the Tennessee Nursing Association, only 20-60% of incidences are reported. Kathleen Murphy, director of government affairs for the Tennessee Nurses Association said she hopes this law will help raise that number.

“It shouldn’t be ‘part of the job,’ or something they should expect or anything like that. They went into the field of nursing to care for others and that’s what they want to do, and so hopefully this will give them some peace of mind that if something happens, they will be protected and taken seriously,” Murphy said.

She also said the TNA reports 13% of nurses missed workdays due to workplace violence.  A number of surveys highlight the prevalence of violence among different healthcare professions and found that:   

  • 21 percent of registered nurses and nursing students reported being physically assaulted—and 50 percent verbally abused—in a 12-month period   
  • 12 percent of emergency department nurses experienced physical violence—and 59 percent experienced verbal abuse—during a seven-day period