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Health care workers hike Superior Hiking Trail to raise awareness about workplace violence

Health care workers complete a practice 10-mile hike in the Twin Cities in May ahead of their planned 100-mile hike on the Superior Hiking Trail beginning Aug. 17 to raise awareness about the violence some Minnesota health care workers face in their workplaces. courtesy / 100 Miles, 100 Stories

Julie Peterson Stulz's 25-year nursing career was ended by an assault.

Stulz was talking to a patient who came into the psychiatric emergency department at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis when the patient started punching her in the face. She fell, hit her head on the wall and the patient started beating her head, she said.

The assault resulted in a broken nose, bruises and a traumatic brain injury. A few weeks later, she realized she could no longer work as a nurse because the brain injury impaired her ability to think quickly. Since then, she said she's suffered memory problems, headaches, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It's not how she wanted her nursing career to end and she misses taking care of patients, she said.

"It's really changed my entire life and it was so preventable. That's the thing that's so aggravating. And it keeps happening and people keep getting hurt. We want everyone to know that it can be prevented," she said.

To raise awareness about the violence Minnesota nurses, doctors and first responders can face when helping patients, a group of health care workers will hike 100 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail from the northern terminus to the Temperance River beginning Aug. 17. Each mile of the "100 Miles 100 Stories" hike will honor a health care worker who has been the victim of violence and the first mile will honor Stulz.

Stulz said she believes violence against health care workers isn't isolated to Twin Cities hospitals, but can happen at any medical facility in the state. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration study found that from 2002 to 2013, the number of serious workplace violence incidents that required a worker to be off from work to recuperate was four times higher in health care than in other private industries. Violence in the workplace is "vastly underreported" in the health care industry, including in facilities that have a formal reporting system, according to OSHA.

For the 100-mile hike, a core group of 15 hikers are planning to complete the entire hike while other health care workers will join the group for as long as they can. People can still join the hike if they're interested, said Jeff Loeks, one of the group's leaders who is organizing the hike through his group Special Teams Charities.

Although they've done a few practice hikes in the Twin Cities to prepare, many of the hikers haven't done a long-distance activity like they're about to undertake. Loeks asks that other hikers stop to talk or offer encouragement if they see the group on the trail.

People who don't work in health care don't usually know what the job entails, he said, adding that he didn't know before he became a nurse.

"I had a guy last night, I had to tie him down to a bed. He was calling me every name in the book. I'm going to take care of you, no matter what you call me, no matter what you do. I'm going to take care of you," he said.

The idea for the hike originated with Loeks, who said he uses hiking to find "peace" away from work. As a nurse in a Twin Cities emergency room, he said he feels helpless when he sees patients become violent against the nurses and doctors. Then they're worried about reporting the incidents to their employer or don't report it because they've become so accustomed to it that they no longer thing it's worth the effort. Loeks said he hopes the hike brings together health care workers while showing them that hiking is an option to relieve job stress.

Stulz said that she has found it healing to talk about what happened to her via the 100 Miles 100 Stories event. The violence she suffered also had a ripple effect — it affected her coworkers, family and friends, in addition to the security guards who wanted to be there to help, she said. She added that she wants hospitals to take more action to protect their staff from violence.

"We are the prime caregivers of everyone that comes into the hospitals — everybody that's involved in taking care of that person when they walk in the door," she said.

For more information, visit the Special Teams Charities' Facebook page.