The hospital's chief operating officer Eileen Whalen (center) and Dr. Isabelle Desjardins at Tuesday's press conference
The University of Vermont Medical Center has postponed 68 elective procedures that require complex surgical teams in advance of a nursing strike planned for Thursday and Friday, July 12 and 13.
Chief medical officer Dr. Isabelle Desjardins said at a press conference Tuesday that patients were contacted and given the option to reschedule their surgeries for later in the month. Emergency medical care will still be available 24-7 and outpatient services will continue as normal, according to Desjardins.
Nearly 600 temporary nurses are currently in Burlington receiving two days of training before the union work stoppage. Desjardins said there is no cause for concern about patient safety during the strike.
Samira Lawson, a member of the nurses' union bargaining committee, disagreed.
"If they were really not concerned, they would not cancel any surgeries," she said after the press conference.
Last week, the hospital told Seven Days it planned to continue all care as usual without any cancellations.
The UVM nurses and the hospital are scheduled to negotiate Tuesday night, but the proposed wage increases advertised by the hospital in press releases have not changed over the past week. A bargaining session Monday night yielded no resolution.
The nurses have maintained that the hospital has a staffing crisis stemming from uncompetitive wages. Ninety physicians and other health care providers signed a letter calling on the hospital to increase compensation for nurses, and 43 members of the state legislature sent a letter to the hospital expressing concern about unsafe staffing.
Some patients are choosing to preemptively cancel appointments that fall on the strike dates.
Llu Mulvaney-Stanak, who uses they/them pronouns, and their partner did not wait to see if the hospital would cancel a July 13 ultrasound appointment for their 5-month-old child. Instead, the couple rescheduled the appointment in solidarity with the nurses.
Mulvaney-Stanak said the couple received excellent care from nurses during a long and complicated labor when their baby was delivered in breech position. The ultrasound was intended to ensure the child does not have any health complications.
Mulvaney-Stanak also said they were not confident their child would receive quality care from a replacement nurse.
“When you have an infant, the thing you want most is people who know what the hell they are doing,” Mulvaney-Stanak said.
Nilima Abrams, a cancer patient receiving chemotherapy at UVM Medical Center, was upset to learn her second chemo session was scheduled for July 12. The drugs she is receiving can cause heart failure and an error could prove catastrophic.
Abrams said she did not feel comfortable receiving the treatment from temporary nurses. When she called the number the hospital provided to patients who had concerns about the strike, Abrams said she was put through to a switchboard operator who transferred her to her medical department, without first offering any strike-related advice.
Abrams said she felt the hospital was not responsive to her concerns, describing its preparations as disorganized and sloppy. No administrators returned her calls or answered her questions, she said. After a week of “pleading,” Abrams was able to move her appointment to Wednesday, before the work stoppage is scheduled to begin.
Abrams said she is frustrated with the hospital for having shortsighted vision and not creating a culture where nurses are respected, staffing positions are filled and patient safety is prioritized. She urged hospital administrators to pay the nurses what they deserve. But Abrams also feels disheartened that the nurses are striking at the potential expense of the patients they want to protect.
“I am mostly frustrated with the administration. That said, the trap of the whole thing is that the nurses want to prove how valuable they are, which I get, but in order to prove that … patients are being put at risk,” she said.
Abrams suggested that the nurses strike in shifts rather than all walk off the job at once.
A 2012 study from the American Economic Journal found that nursing strikes at hospitals in New York state from 1984 to 2004 increased in-hospital mortality by 18.3 percent. Meanwhile, 30-day readmissions rose by 5.7 percent for patients admitted during the strike. But the median strike length of hospitals in the study was 19 days. The UVM nurses are slated to strike for only two days.
Julie MacMillan, the nurses' union lead negotiator, told Seven Days last week that its 1,800 members are not taking the strike lightly. She said she feels 100 percent confident that the planned strike is the fault of the hospital for refusing to meet nurses’ needs.
Caitlin Gray, a member of the nurses' bargaining committee, said after the press conference that hospital conditions are already unsafe because of staffing issues. She works in inpatient rehabilitation and was once asked to attend to four people with traumatic brain injuries with only two "sitters" to help her watch them. The patients had had part of their skulls removed because of brain hemorrhaging and should each have had their own sitter, according to Gray, as a fall could prove fatal.
When she raised her concerns, she said, she was told to put mattresses next to the patients' beds.