Nurses strike looms; what about the patients?by Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — On Thursday, 12,000 Twin Cities nurses will leave their jobs on a one-day strike. California nurses will walk off their jobs on the same day, and together it could be the largest nurses strike in the country's history.
Fourteen Twin Cities hospitals will be affected, and details are still murky on how they're going to deal with the 24-hour strike.
The people who are most anxious to learn those details are the patients with procedures scheduled this week.
While the two sides argue over their new contract, patients who have procedures scheduled in the coming week worry their care might suffer.
Patricia Conrad, 75, of Lakeville is having surgery at Fairview Southdale Hospital on Wednesday -- a day before the strike.
Conrad has a blockage in her right carotid artery. She'll have to stay at the hospital overnight.
That probably means when she wakes up on Thursday morning, she'll be greeted by nurses recruited by the hospital to temporarily replace the strikers.
Conrad's daughter, Kristy Harms, will be in the waiting room. Harms trusts the hospital will take good care of her mother during the strike.
"But you just want to feel confident that it's not going to make any difference at all," said Harms. "I just don't want them to discharge her too soon and miss a potential complication, which is going to cause us to make a trip back to the hospital for readmission."
Harms says she is prepared to stand up for her mother's rights if she needs to.
"If they decide she needs to go home, and I don't think she's ready, then I need to have the conversation with the nursing staff and the surgeon. I need to be the advocate," she said.
The hospitals say it shouldn't come to that point. Their spokeswoman, Maureen Schriner, points out that while regular nurses may be gone, the other medical staff patients are used to seeing will still be there.
Beyond that, the hospitals are vague on their contingency plans. Schriner says that's because each facility -- and in many cases each medical unit -- is drawing up its own strategy. Plans are supposed to be finalized Monday and announced Tuesday.
Schriner says in many parts of hospitals, things will go on as normal. People coming in for emergencies will get care. Pregnant women will be able to give birth.
"It's the elective surgeries, or elective procedures, that is the point where the physicians and the family members will decide if they want to have the procedure or not," she said.
Schriner says the only problem with the evolving contingency plans was caused by the striking nurses.
"When the union represents that this is a one-day strike with a minimal impact on patients, the problem is that it causes anxiety. What we really want the public to know is not to feel anxiety about this," said Schriner. "The hospitals are going to be open, that we're going to ensure patient safety, and that there will be nurses there to take care of them."
"Give me a break. It's going to be even worse," respondes nurses union spokeman John Nemo, who says patients' anxiety is justified.
"Safety is already a huge issue. That's why 12,000 nurses are going to go on strike right now, in this economy. So to say that things will be great with replacements -- no," he said.
Nemo says the hospitals have forced the striking nurses to take action -- but they're still worried about the patients they're leaving behind.
"Just talk to your doctors. They're going to be the best informed about the scenarios going on at the hospitals," said Nemo. "As inconvenient as that is for the patients and the doctors, that's a result of where the hospitals are at. It's unfortunate, but that's probably the best practical advice you can give someone right now."
Currently, the union plans only a one-day strike, but there's a possibility the nurses won't be back on the job the following day.
Several of the hospitals have told striking nurses not to come back at all until the hospitals tell them to. And federal mediators haven't scheduled more talks to try to reach an agreement.