I love being a nurse. Despite the profession demanding so much physically, mentally and emotionally, I cannot imagine myself doing anything else. In no other line of work is the privilege of interacting with fellow human beings during the most intensely personal and vulnerable periods of their lives. I’ve worked in healthcare for quite a few years, although I will not tell you exactly how many. My entire career has been in one large city hospital. I’ve worked in medical-surgical units, oncology, emergency medicine, and my favorite, critical care, where I continue to practice presently. I’ve loved all of it.
If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing….Well,….no,…..OK,… there is something I wish I could take back. It’s an incident that occurred early in my career. For all the caring and compassion expected of all nurses, the profession has a dirty little secret. That secret can be expressed in four words…Just four words……It’s…”nurses eat their young.” Nearly every nurse knows that phrase. Most first hear it while still in school. It’s been passed down for ages. It refers to the fact that new nurses are routinely bullied by older ones. In one study, 60% of nurses left their first job within 6 months of starting due to bullying or verbal abuse by colleagues. If this is difficult to believe, just Google search those four words. I guarantee you will find many articles on the topic.
The New York Times ran a piece on it. Academic journals have analyzed it. Many theories have tried to explain this phenomenon. Most point to the high stress environment combined with poor coping mechanisms. Others see it as a traditional form of hazing as part of a young nurse’s growing process. One writer suggested bullying is related to nursing being a predominantly female profession. According to this author, in a large group of women, biological and social factors bring forth an urge for alpha females to establish dominance and order. Translation: women are born to be bitches; what did you expect to happen? Personally, I think the situation is too complex for one simple answer. So, did I experienced bullying? Did I witness nurses eating their young? I wish I could say, “No.”
We’ll start with my college days. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree is a four year college program. The curriculum requires clinical rotations where student nurses are placed in actual healthcare settings to gain practical experience under the supervision of a faculty preceptor. Most of our rotations occurred at a large academic teaching hospital affiliated with our university. Being a “teaching hospital” meant the facility was a training ground for nurses, new doctors (residents), pharmacists, physical therapists, radiology technicians, respiratory therapists and more.
We were sent to the hospital in groups of four students. Our first day was a mix of fascination and terror. The four of us stepped off the elevator and followed the signs to our assignments on the medical-surgical nursing unit. At 7:00 am, walking down the antiseptic scented hallway to the nurses station, we headed into controlled chaos. Nurses darted in and out of patient rooms. Some finishing their night shift were giving report to those whose shift was just beginning. Patient charts were strewn all over the counter.
The ward clerk was on the phone with multiple callers. Transport aides came to deliver patients to their scheduled studies. I would relive these ordinary hectic mornings thousands of times in my life. But on this inaugural day, my classmates and I were intimidated…and scared. We were told to report to Stephanie, our faculty preceptor. However, we learned she was at a meeting. So, the four of us remained huddled in the nurses station, like shaking sheep, doing our best to stay out of the way. Finally, a friendly nurse named Pam suggested we sit in the break room until Stephanie arrived.
The break room was a cozy little space equipped with a table, chairs, and a kitchenette. It was a place for nurses to take lunch breaks or to grab a few quiet moments. As the four of us sat at the table, various nurses came in and out. Most of them did not greet us or even acknowledge our presence. Three tall blonde nurses entered the room pulling their chairs from our table, repositioning them across the room, before sitting down for their own private discussion. To these three women, we did not exist. Adding to our uneasiness, their conversation was sheer gossip and put downs – of their own colleagues. The discomforting atmosphere was about to get worse. Faith walked in.
We all heard the stories about Faith. A mean bitch who could turn water into ice just by looking at it, she was the terror of nursing students for years. We felt her imposing presence immediately. A former power forward on her college women’s basketball team, she stood at 5’11” carrying a brawny frame; I’d estimate she weighed about 170 lbs. Her enormous hands, perfectly capable of windmilling a basketball in her palm, were matched by her 12.5 shoe size. Her large head, proportional to her body, was beautifully framed by coiffed walnut brown hair to her shoulders. With her wide set brown eyes, classic nose and full lips, at age 34, she was quite an attractive woman – when she didn’t look like she was sucking lemons. Faith wasted no time living up to her reputation.
“Hey girl,” said one of the tall blondes.
“Hey,” Faith replied. “Did Dr. Morello call back about the labs.? Not that he’d know what to do with the results anyway…the idiot.” Her speech, cool and deliberate further enhanced her intimidating mystique.
“No, but Dr. Bailey called looking for you.”
Faith rolled her eyes. “He’s worse. Another one I always have to straighten out.”
The four of us awkwardly sat in silence hoping our preceptor would come to rescue us from our unwanted presence in the break room. No such luck. Our anxiety soared to new levels when Faith approached us seemingly with a purpose. Towering over one of my fellow students and placing the big hands on the back of her chair, Faith glared down at her.
“Hi, I’m Rebecca. I’m one of the nursing students,” said my timid classmate.
“Get up,” Faith growled. Rebecca, scared and confused, looked to us as if we could clear up some misunderstanding. “I said GET UP! YOU’RE IN MY GODDAM CHAIR.”
Rebecca, visibly shaken, lifted her 5’1” and barely 100 lbs body off the chair, shrinking away from her antagonist, before unceremoniously melting into another identical empty chair.
Faith meanwhile dragged her claimed prize chair over to her three colleagues where their unpleasant conversation continued. “Really?” we thought. “Does she really go out of her way to be nasty”.
I noticed Rebecca’s hands trembling. Raised in a conservative Christian home, she was named after the biblical Rebecca (She did not answer to “Becky”). A product of homeschooling, she was a straight A student, but naive and green as a meadow after an early summer rain. Immersed in a secular college, Rebecca did not drink, smoke, swear, or dance. She was saving herself for the Christian man specifically chosen for her by the Lord. She just hadn’t met him yet. It was easy to see why Rebecca chose nursing. She was the most transparent, considerate and giving person I ever met. Although she didn’t approve of the lifestyle of some of her more heathen classmates, she was never preachy, and was always the first to offer help to anyone. In return, we respected her religious sensibilities. Rebecca was like our little sister who we needed to guide in the ways of the big bad world. I’m sure no one ever spoke to her in the manner Faith had. I felt sick and angry watching her treated that way.
Finally, Stephanie, arrived. Her bubbly, smiling entrance seemed odd in a room which just had the oxygen sucked out of it. At least we felt a bit of relief. Stephanie gave us an orientation to the unit and then paired each of us up with an experienced nurse who we would shadow for the next six weeks. Each of these nurses seemed friendly and willing to teach. I suspect it was not a coincidence that none of us were paired with Faith or her three blond buddies. I was paired with Sharon, a slender 38 year-old seasoned African-American nurse. Her glowing smile and ebullient personality put me at ease immediately. “OK Kiva,” she grinned. “It’s you and me for the next six weeks. There are two objectives for this rotation. First, we’re going to learn as much as we can so you can be a superstar nurse. Second, we’re going to have fun. So let’s get going.”
For most nursing students, the clinical rotation is their initial hands-on contact with actual patients. Vitally important skills and procedures are experienced for the first time. The rotations are where the seeds of professionalism, communication skills, collegiality, and teamwork begin to germinate. Overall, my experience during the next six weeks was wonderful. Under Sharon’s supervision, I performed my first clinical assessments. I learned how to obtain vital signs, identify heart sounds, respiratory patterns, neurological status, and much more. I was shown proper techniques in turning patients, ambulation, bathing, and safely passing medication.
I placed my first intravenous catheter and drew blood samples. I even placed a bladder catheter for the first time. Sharon was amazing. Her ability at the bedside was poetry. With seemingly no effort, Sharon could calm the anxious, encourage the fearful, redirect the belligerent, and educate the ignorant. Her communication style to patients, families, colleagues, and physicians was a joy to watch. I learned how much influence a mentor, whether good or bad, can easily impart on an impressionable student. Sharon was everything I wanted to be. I was also happy to see that Rebecca seemed to be flourishing working with Pam, the pleasant nurse who greeted us on our first day.
The six weeks, however, were not without disturbing vibes. In general, the nurses functioned reasonably well as a unit. They were all very busy. Most of them were pleasant and collegial. But yet, there was a proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room everyone tiptoed around – Faith. Thankfully, she was given no responsibility to the nursing students. But still, I’d see her everyday rolling her eyes, making dismissive comments, putting down everyone from the volunteer to the CEO. During the six weeks, she refused to acknowledge me even when we were the only two people approaching each other in the hallway. The only colleagues she appeared to socialize with were her free blonde friends, who were equally miserable.
Together, they were a clique of tall unhappy bitches, and Faith was clearly the alpha female with the blondes as her stooges. But why was this tolerated or even enabled by the rest of the staff? Why did the nurse manager seem to turn a blind eye? Faith held no position of authority. To be honest, she was an excellent clinician. Patients loved her. Her commanding presence and detached purposeful voice left patients confident they were in good hands – and they were – even if those hands could crush watermelons. But still, it didn’t seem fair that a destructive malcontent was on equal status with Sharon who was gracious, patient, and encouraging. And why was Faith so miserable? Was she trapped in a job she hated? Was she facing personal hardships? Being smartass college students, we were certain we knew the reason for Faith’s unhappiness. She wasn’t getting laid at home. Or anywhere else, apparently.
My first rotation ended. I expressed my deep appreciation to Sharon and we hugged. It was back to classroom work. There would be more clinical rotations in other hospitals and clinics with different preceptors. With each week, my knowledge and self-confidence grew. Until finally…..graduation!
As new graduate nurses, Rebecca and I accepted positions at the university teaching hospital’s medical-surgical floor. That’s right – the site of our first rotation. Why on earth would we would want to work at a place where some nurses treated us like shit when we were students? First, the experience was top notch and prepared us to work just about anywhere else. Second, the academic center offered opportunities not available elsewhere. Third, why let an asshole like Faith be the reason to not take a job that otherwise was a good fit? We’d find our niche with other nurses. And wouldn’t Faith treat us respectfully now that we were colleagues and no longer students?
Rebecca and I shared a 2 bedroom apartment a few blocks from the hospital. As new graduate nurses, we were greeted warmly by the staff – well, most of the staff. Lynn, the nurse manager gave us our schedules. For the first few weeks, things went well. The adrenaline rush of being an independent nurse and the camaraderie on the unit made for an enjoyable first job experience. I reestablished my mentor relationship with Sharon.
Faith and her blonde bots interacted with us minimally and only when absolutely necessary. Before long, I realized how much impact Faith had on the culture of that unit. I started to understand those unpleasant vibes I sensed as a student. By their inability or unwillingness to hold Faith accountable for her deplorable attitude and behavior, the other nurses were complicit in the toxic environment she created. When we passed in the hallways, she looked away. How fucking arrogant. Rebecca and I would get the same treatment from Faith’s sycophants. Fuck them. I can play that game too. I’m a nurse now. From that point onward I would look through them or past them. I ignored them in the break room, the ladies room, cafeteria, anywhere I would encountered them. Of course, I would speak with them when I professionally had to. I was not about to risk patient safety over cattiness.
It got darker. One afternoon, I was in an empty double patient room divided in the center by a partition. My patient had gone for a CT scan and I was remaking the bed in his absence. On the other side of the partition, unaware of my presence, Faith was having a private conversation with one of her lackeys.
“I don’t like her. I can’t believe we hired the moron,” said Faith. “A Bible-toting redneck. Now we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
“Pam said she was really good. She got straight As,” replied the blonde.
“Pam thinks all these morons are good. She’s a stupid shit herself. That school has gone downhill. Now they’ll graduate any retard. It’s all about money.”
“Well, she just started. Should we give her a chance”.
“Hell no. I want her out of here.”
“What are you going to do.”
I froze in disbelief and anger. Did Faith just say she planned to drive out Rebecca? How? It was clear Faith never liked her. Is that how it works here? If the Queen Bee doesn’t like you, you’re gone? I decided not to tell Rebecca what I heard. I decided I’d look out for her. I was sure all the other nurses would too.
For the next several weeks, Rebecca seemed happy. She performed as well as you’d expect any new nurse. Then one night she told me Faith was actually….talking….to her. “About what?” I asked.
“Just small talk. Nothing in particular”.
“Rebecca, be careful. Don’t trust her. Keep your conversations very short.”
Over the next few weeks, Rebecca was coming home stressed. She’d tell me she was making a lot of mistakes on the floor placing patients at risk. “Tell me about the mistakes,” I demanded. She listed them: not checking labs fast enough, taking too long passing medications, untimely documentation, not completing discharges on time. “Rebecca, no one thinks you’re doing a poor job. This came from Faith, didn’t it?”
“Well…yeah. But she’s nicer now. She’s trying to help me.”
Disgusting. Now I could see Faith’s devious MO. It’s a shell game. Everyday, there are a thousand tasks a nurse needs to accomplish. The ones Rebecca mentioned are just a few. The key is to do your best to move quickly and prioritize. It comes with practice. All nurses learn how to do it. Faith just picked out the things Rebecca hadn’t completed yet and declared it a deficiency. Now she does it with a smile under the guise of being “helpful”, knowing full well she’s messing with Rebecca’s self-confidence. And she seemed to be doing this when I wasn’t on the same shift.
“Rebecca, don’t listen to her. She’s not your friend. She wants you to doubt yourself.” Then, in an appeal to Rebecca’s religiosity, I warned, “Rebecca, Faith is of ……Satan!”
Rebecca took my advice. She stopped responding to Faith’s “friendly” criticisms. She seemed to be getting her confidence back. I asked Sharon to also look out for Rebecca and encourage her as much as possible.
Things were well for a few months. Then, Faith upped her game. Like a predator targeting weak prey separated from the herd, she attacked Rebecca when neither Sharon nor I were around. Now, her mind game was more vicious, designed to convince Rebecca she was a complete liability as a nurse.
First, Faith blamed her for a pressure ulcer developing on her patient’s back side. Bullshit. Such ulcers develop in bedridden patients due to the pressure from lying in the same position, cutting off local blood supply and leading to skin breakdown. They can be quite serious and are prevented by frequently turning the patient. Rebecca’s patient weighed 300 lbs – impossible for tiny Rebecca to turn alone. His care should have been planned as a group effort. Next, she told Rebecca that she was responsible for a patient suffering a hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain) by administering an injection of heparin, an anticoagulant. A bold faced lie. Heparin is routinely given to hospitalized patients to prevent serious blood clots from forming. Her patient’s heparin was ordered by the doctors who had no way of foreseeing the subsequent stroke. Rebecca was simply following orders. Sometimes bad outcomes happen in spite of doing all the right things.
“Sharon, has anyone ever tried to stop her,” I asked. “Who do I report this to? Lynn? The Nursing Director?” She told me a new nurse complained to the hospital leadership last year. It went nowhere. In fact, life got worse for her. She quit.
“It’s easier for them to call you a rebel than to deal with Faith,” she explained. “That’s the way it’s always been. You can take her on, but you’ll only get your uniform dirty.”
Faith’s game was taking effect. Rebecca was becoming racked with false guilt and self-doubt. She was not eating or sleeping well. I took Rebecca to meet with Lynn, our nursing manager. Like a torrent, I listed all of Faith’s acts of bullying, arrogance and lying. Lynn assured Rebecca she was doing a fine job. She dished up several platitudes and told Rebecca her door would always be open if she wished to talk again. Soooo,….what will be done to stop Faith’s destructive behavior? Fuck if I knew.
A week later, Faith managed to hit a new low. A doctor called our floor angry that he was not informed of a critically low potassium level on Rebecca’s patient. The lab documented that the result had been called to a nurse named Rebecca, although Rebecca insisted she received no such report. The mystery was solved when we found a clipboard next to the phone with the patient’s name and potassium level handwritten on paper. The clipboard belonged to one of Faith’s blonde ass kissing disciples. Yes, she impersonated Rebecca and deliberately withheld important information. How can people possibly get away with this? When bullies set the culture and management and staff choose to be non confrontational, this is exactly what may happen.
Rebecca was losing weight. She was having crying fits. Her evening prayers were becoming desperate and frenzied. Through the wall separating our bedrooms, I could here her calling herself a failure and begging for forgiveness. When you destroy someone’s confidence and self-worth, you have no idea of the depth of the damage to their psyche. In Rebecca’s mind, God called her into Nursing. Thanks to Faith’s mindfuck, either God was wrong or Rebecca was a failure. I was frustrated I couldn’t convince her otherwise. The cruelty and injustice burned a hole in my stomach. My feelings toward Faith and her three goons were now pure…hatred.
After weeks of playing cat and mouse, Faith finally went for the kill. One of Rebecca’s patients suffered a cardiac arrest. A Code Blue was called. Chest compressions were started. Electric shocks were delivered. Several rounds of medications were administered. After 30 minutes, the code was terminated; the patient pronounced dead. Rebecca was the nurse delivering the medications. Of course, Faith saw her opportunity, telling Rebecca she hadn’t moved fast enough. Of course, that would be news to the physician team leader who oversaw every aspect of the code. Even worse, the patient was an 89 year old man with advanced cancer who earlier that day requested that he be placed on Do Not Resuscitate status. The doctor had not yet placed the DNR order. The real error was a patient who wanted to pass away peacefully received an unwanted resuscitation attempt. Sadly, that did nothing to alleviate Rebecca’s sense of failure and guilt.
Of course, I was off work that day. I came home to find Rebecca in our sitting room with her bags packed. She resigned effective immediately. Her parents were coming in the morning to help her move back home. We stayed up all night talking and crying. I kept insisting she was an excellent nurse and to not give up. I tried to assure her she’d be fine in the right environment. The injustice of it all was overwhelming. Hatred and rage were boiling faster inside of me. After a sleepless night I had to go to work, sad that I couldn’t meet Rebecca’s parents. I wished they could hear my version of the story; that Rebecca really was a good nurse. Rebecca and I kissed and hugged before I left.
Sleep-deprived, I headed off to work for the most difficult shift in my career. Struggling to hold back tears, I decided I no longer wanted to be a nurse. I could not work in a hospital that allowed a miserable deceitful monster destroy an idealistic innocent young nurse. Worse, everybody knew Faith was an arrogant lying bully and NOBODY did anything about it. It was if everyone was resigned to the idea that she was part of the culture.
Yes, I could get a job somewhere else, but did I want to remain in a profession where “nurses eat their young” is part of the tradition? Faith worked that shift. I tried hard not to look at her. I never thought I could hate another human so much. Exhausted, I painfully trudged through the day, contemplating my future. I dreaded telling my parents I would be leaving nursing and going back to school. A lump formed in my throat. Then, from behind me, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Kiva, are you alright? You look down”. It was Rob, one of the first year medical residents.
“Very bad day.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Well, you know today is Saint Patrick’s Day. A group of us are going to O’Reilly’s Pub after work. Come join us.”
I didn’t have much social life at this time. I typically avoided dating guys from work, especially doctors. However, because we were a teaching hospital with trainees, there were plenty of single twenty somethings around. Getting to know people my age in other departments outside the hospital was always fun. “Thanks Rob. I’ll be there at 7.”
“We’ll save you a place at the table.”
Naturally, O’Reilly’s Pub was packed for Saint Patrick’s Day. Weaving through the crowd, I took my seat at the table across from Rob. “Glad to see you made it,” he said, pouring me a glass of green beer. “This will help you feel better. Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, what kind of name is Kiva?”
“My father is Jewish. My mother is Irish,” I explained. They looked for a name that would have meaning in each of their ancestral language. In Hebrew, Kiva means ‘protect’. In Gaelic, it means ‘beautiful ‘. Tonight, I don’t feel beautiful and I’m a terrible protector.”
“What do you mean.”
“Rebecca quit. They just chewed her up and spit her out.”
“Rebecca? That little religious chick?”
“Yes Rob, that’s the one,” I said with slight exasperation. “Faith lied to her, sabotaged her work, bullied her to no end. She couldn’t take it anymore. She finally broke down. I wanted to help her but didn’t know how. The thing is…everyone knew. They all knew it was wrong. But nobody did anything or even said anything…even the manager.”
“Faith? That tall nurse? Oh man, the residents know all about her. She’s a bitch and a half.”
“Worse than that”
“What’s her story. How did she become such a nasty piece of work?”
“I have no idea.”
“Well, I think I know her problem, Rob offered. She’s not getting drilled at home. Maybe we should call her husband and tell him to get with it. She’s killing us at work.”
“I knew that was coming,” I sighed. “And why do we only say that about difficult women. What about men who-“
Rob and I continued our conversation over my second beer. We talked about movies. We both liked jazz and the same rock groups. We talked about our favorite vacation spots. Then, Rob with a shocked look on his face seemed to be staring past me to the entrance door. “Kiva, you’re not going to believe this, but……she’s here.”
“Faith, she’s here.”
“If you’re messing with me, this isn’t funny.”
Rob wasn’t kidding. I quickly turned around enough to spot the unmistakable sight of Faith’s hulking form, with her three blonde bitches working their way toward a table in a direct line with ours. I let out a groan.
“Oh shit, they’re going to pass right by us”, I said. Watch this.”
With impeccable timing, and with Faith just a few feet from us, I rose from my chair, turned toward her with a smile on my face and gave her my best, “Hi Faith, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.” Right on cue, Faith ignored me and looked away, as did her friends, moving on toward their table.
“Damn, Kiva,” Rob said. “She just dissed you. Nothing subtle about it.”
“Yep, welcome to my world.”
“You’re her colleague. What an arrogant cu- Sorry, that’s not very gentlemanly.”
“No, I hear you.”
“Somebody needs to kick her ass,” Rob said. “She needs a good beat down.”
Rob and I tried to change topics but the wind was out of my sails. The anger was back, gnawing at the inside of my stomach, slowly bubbling into rage. Rob realized I was no longer holding up my end of the conversation.
“Kiva, let go of it.”
“I’ve been trying for months.”
“You can’t let this job eat at you. You can work as a nurse anywhere.”
“Will it be better anywhere else?” I asked. “Nurses eat their young, you know.”
The rage bubbled faster inside, churning over and over. I felt my composure melting away. I did not want Rob to see it. “Excuse me,” I said as I got up to head for the restroom. Standing at the sink, I looked at my sunken, bloodshot blue eyes in the mirror. The sleep deprivation, the work day and the stress were taking their toll. And the hatred….And the anger…Boiling faster like a cauldron. It all flashed passed me…the arrogance…the lies…the intimidation. The isolation. And worse of all… the staff’s indifference…the indifference…The FUCKING INDIFFERENCE. The boiling pressure was growing. In the mirror, I noticed my teeth were clenched. I didn’t recognized the wild look in my eyes.
The door opens. Three women walk in. I see their identities in the mirror. I’m too numb to even care. It’s Faith and two of her fucktards.
“What’s wrong with you. You look like crap.”
“Bad day I guess.” The lid to the cauldron could barely hold back the pressure.
“Did you hear Rebecca quit?”
“She couldn’t cut it. Not my problem. Do you have anything important to say? I’m not interested in chit chatting.”
The pressure reaching volcanic levels, the point of no return was near.
“Yes, there’s something I need to say.”
“Make it quick”
With my fists clenched and stomach raging, I replied, “What I want to say is…I mean what I want to say is…is…is…I’M GOING TO BEAT THE LIVING FUCK OF OUT OF YOU RIGHT HERE TONIGHT!” My voice is growling in a way I never heard before.
Faith glared at me in shock. But for the first time ever, I noted that she didn’t have the cool, in control confidence in her eyes.
“You’re drunk. Get out of my way”.
“YOU ARROGANT CXNT! YOU’RE A LIAR! YOU’RE A BULLY! YOU’RE A WORTHLESS PIECE OF SHIT! HOW DARE YOU FUCK WITH PEOPLE’S LIVES! IT’S OVER BITCH! I’M NOT AFRAID OF YOU! WE’RE SETTLING THIS BEHIND THE PUB NOW!”
Faith is expressionless. “Oh, you want to fight me,” her voice slightly trembling. “Don’t waste my time, Sweet Cakes.”
Closing the space between us, I reared back my arm and slapped her face. My voice lower, I snarled, “What are you going to do about that? You’re not so intimidating. What are your goofy sidekicks going to think? I’m killing your reputation.”
Faith responded definitively, “OK, you little twat. We’re going outside.”
We left the restroom. I briefly stopped at our table to tell Rob I’d be fighting Faith out back.
“Kiva, DON’T,” he pleaded.
“You said someone needed to kick her ass. I guess it will be me.”
The back of O’Reilly’s Pub was fairly secluded, illuminated by a street lamp. The back door opened to a square blacktop. On the opposite side of the blacktop was a row of seven foot hedges. On another side of the square was a path to the front of the building. On the fourth side was a large dumpster. Being a busy Saint Patrick’s Day, seven overloaded aluminum trash cans without lids were on the lot awaiting transfer of their contents into the dumpster.
Faith was accompanied, of course, by her three yes-women. Rob and two other friends followed me out. The March air was nippy. Faith and I were dressed in our blue scrub uniforms and clogs. I didn’t think to tie back my long dark brown hair running down to the middle of my back. I was 5’7” and 128 lbs, giving away 4 inches at about 40 lbs. I wasn’t a great athlete. I ran track and played softball in high school. I had never been in a fight. I knew something about wrestling. My two brothers wrestled from grade school through college. Over the years, they placed me in every hold imaginable. I now realized fighting on blacktop does not favor wrestling. Faith and I met in the center of the square and exchange hard stares. Faith shoved me back and the fight was on.
I made a mistake immediately by charging at her headfirst with my hands low. Faith had no problem grabbing my long hair with her massive hands and pulled me around in a circle. The pain in my scalp was too much to put into words. After twirling me around, she let go, flinging me against a trash can. I tumbled over it as the can fell spilling its contents. I’m lying on my back in the midst of beer bottles, dirty plastic plates, paper towels, and disgusting scraps of discarded food. I lifted myself out of a puddle of Guinness stout when Faith pulled me up again by the hair and slapped me in the face with her big catchers mitt hand. Then a second slap, numbing the side of my face. She stuck her long leg out and tripped me back into the garbage. I got to my feet noticing my scrubs were now stained with beer, barbecue sauce, sour cream and slop.
I clenched my fists and rushed at her swinging wildly. With her size and reach advantage, I didn’t come close to connecting. The larger woman wrapped her arms around my waist and charged forward pinning me to the pub wall. After a knee to my belly, she found an open storage closet and forced me to the entrance, then repeatedly thrusted her body into mine knocking me inside. To complete the indignity, Faith attempted to slam the door shut to trap me in the closet but I was able to use a broom stick to block the closure. I pushed my way out of the storage space but into a barrage of stinging slaps to the head and face. With ease, Faith turned me around, throwing me against a second trash can. I stumbled backward falling into more waste.
As I kneeled in corned beef and sauerkraut, my aggressor used her big fists to pound my back. With her arms wrapped around my waist, lifting me off my feet, she charged forward 30 feet, driving me into the hedges. The hedge row did not support my weight and I fell backward into it in a folded position with my feet sticking out. Twigs and branches scraped my arms and head. I struggled to separate my self from the vegetation only to find Faith waiting for me. She lifted her size 12.5 clog, kicking me in the chest knocking me back inside the hedges. She reached in and I felt her massive hand grab the front of my scrubs, tearing the V-neck several inches down the middle, exposing my bra. Lifting me in the air again, Faith carried me back to the square black top and sent me ploughing into another garbage can.
I then realized I had no chance of winning this fight. I had no idea Faith was this strong. I would have stood a better chance picking a fight with a bear. The sad fact was that I made a foolish decision driven by anger, rage, sleep deprivation, and alcohol. “Perhaps I could salvage a modest measure of respect by valiantly hanging on while taking a beating,” I thought.
On the square, Faith continued her cat and mouse game. She was oddly silent. Faith fought like she did everything else – cool, cocky, and methodical. With my scrubs and hair covered with beer, food stains, muck, and plant matter, I lifted myself to my hands and knees, only to get stomped by Faith’s big foot. She pulled me up by the hair again, only to knock me back down with a sledge hammer blow to the back. She let me struggle to get up enough to throw another knee into my belly, sending me doubled over, falling forward again into the rubbish.
Crumpled on the black top with Faith standing over me, I curled up into a turtle position, tucking my arms and head inward. Faith stomped my spine, then backed away, studying me like a butcher looking for the best way to slice a slab of beef. As she moved forward, I knew a kick was coming. Surprisingly, she came in with a slow lumbering motion allowing me to roll out of the way. The powerful woman tried to abort her kick, but she committed with enough momentum to send her clog in the air grazing my rib. Grabbing onto her ankle, I rose to my feet, lifting the leg as high as possible forcing my larger opponent to balance on one foot. With a whisper of an opportunity to mount an offense, I twisted her ankle and stepped back. I saw Faith grimace as she was forced to hop. Now, with a chance to finally execute a wrestling move, I tripped Faith’s standing leg, dropping her on her ass. With a clear advantage for the first time in the fight, I had…no idea what to do next.
Sitting on the blacktop, Faith made a mistake no fighter should ever make. She got on her knees and…gave me her back. Instinctively, I rushed at her, ramming my knee into the middle of her back. Standing behind her, I tried something my brother once showed me. I stepped over her shoulders placing her head between my thighs. Wrapping my right shin around her neck, I used my left leg to cinch in a figure 4 head lock. Faith managed to get her left arm between my leg and her neck. I grabbed the arm, squeezed my legs as hard as I could and rolled to the right, compressing Faith’s arm and neck between my legs.
Today, MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu fans will recognize this hold as a version of a rear triangle choke, one of the many “choke” holds designed to cut off an opponent’s circulation until they quit or pass out. Needless to say, the hold is very dangerous and should never be used except under expert supervision. Back then, neither MMA nor BJJ were mainstream.
Faith violently twisted and kicked. She bucked her hips, bridged and kicked some more. Out of desperation, she dug her nails of her right hand into my leg. I was determined to hang on. The kicks diminished in their force and velocity. The claws in my leg relented. And then…stillness.
I panicked. I released the hold immediately. “Oh God, what did I just do,” my disorganized thoughts racing. To my relief, Faith was conscious, rolling onto her stomach, coughing and panting, while she got to her hands and knees. Standing a few feet away, my eyes locked with hers. In a raspy voice, she spoke her first words since the fight started, “I’m not done with you, bitch.”
My anger and rage came back for an encore, shoving away my brief moment of sanity and compassion. Picking up a discarded pizza, I flung the pieces at my reviving enemy, naming each slice after classmates I knew had been abused by her. “This is for Karen,” I screamed. “This is for Jessica. And Christy…and Maria…and Jennifer,” as each slice left its own mark of tomato sauce, cheese, and grease on Faith’s blue scrubs. I rushed at her with a plastic bowl of guacamole dip. “This is for……ME!” I shrieked, plunging the green goop onto her head. Completely out of my mind, I carried a remaining upright trash can and held it upside down over the recovering amazon. “And this is for ……REBECCA!” An avalanche of litter, bottles, beverages, and putrid refuse tumbled onto her head, shoulders and back. As I backed off, to my horror, Faith…stands…up…like a warrior rising from the ashes, her eyes blazing with venom. Standing in the square blacktop, which now resembled a landfill, we both looked like we rolled in vomit. Facing each other, our eyes glared like two wild animals about to fight to the death. “I haven’t even started yet,” she snarled.
I’m now resigned that I was about to be destroyed. Briefly, I closed my eyes and awaited my fate. I did not see the large powerful arms whisk me high into the air. Before I could process what happened, I’m six feet off the ground, draped over a large shoulder. Except, these arms and shoulders belonged to a…man. “Fuckin unbelievable,” said the burly bouncer, “are you two really nurses?”
We were ordered off the premises immediately. The furious owner threatened to have us charged with trespassing and defacing property. The bouncer escorted Faith to her car. Rob returned my handbag and keys. Holding my shoulders, he gently kissed my forehead. “I’ll call you,” he whispered. Silently, I turned and left, smelling like the bottom of a kitchen disposal.
I fully expected the next day at work to be my last. By the start of my 7 AM shift, news of the fight spread throughout the hospital. I waited for Lynn, my manager, to call me in for my termination notice. Although most of the staff couldn’t stand Faith, she was entrenched in seniority. I could argue the fight was a personal matter outside the workplace, but it wouldn’t matter. In our unit’s dysfunctional culture, it was much easier to label me a “troublemaker” than to deal with Faith. To my bewilderment, I wasn’t fired. In fact, hardly anybody said a word about our brawl.
And then there was the issue of facing Faith. How do two women who tried to annihilate each other ever work together again? As nurses? Perhaps the strangest part of the fight’s aftermath was that we….tried. Even stranger was the fact that we never even mentioned the fight to each other. Faith was still the cool impressive figure she’d always been. She still didn’t smile much. But the bullying…stopped. So did a lot of the eye rolling, snarky comments, and insults. And she no longer caused nursing students to shit their pants. Her three blond pals seemed to distance themselves from her and awkwardly tried to bond with other staff. Within six months, they each left for jobs elsewhere. Faith and I never became friends, but she did give me an ever so slight nod of the head when we past in the hallway. If there was any positive outcome to our fight, it was that we reached a modicum of a collegial relationship. And that’s how it would remain – until Faith was killed in a car accident two years later.
At her funeral, I cried till I hurt. I couldn’t bear seeing her husband and two boys. Over the years, I became convinced that Faith was an extremely insecure woman whose brutal exterior was masking ….something. I grieve that, in another time and place, she might have received the help she needed. In a culture that promotes bully behavior, the bullies themselves are also victims. Despite her flawed humanity, Faith did her part to care for the sick and alleviate suffering. As a nurse, I learned much from her. And I learned what not to be. After all, she was my colleague. She was…a nurse.
I do not want to leave you with the impression that the fight was justified. It was not. Positive changes could have taken effect with proper action. In the beginning of my story, I mentioned one great regret. It’s that I didn’t confront Faith immediately when I heard her hatch her plot against Rebecca. Bullying should never be tolerated and ignoring the behavior is the worse possible action. Despite my young age, I was no better than the rest of the staff by allowing Faith to believe she was unaccountable.
Gradually, I made nursing education my mission. I became the faculty preceptor for my former university. I was determined to make every student feel welcomed into a nurturing environment. I would go on to win several mentoring and teaching awards from my alma mater. Today, nurses eating their young remains a problem. However, at least it’s in the open and being addressed. In 2015, American Nursing Association wrote a position paper on bullying, advocating zero tolerance and proactive strategies. In time, I would see the culture in my nursing unit change. Collaboration and transparency replaced individualism and secrecy. Autonomy replaced top down management. When errors occurred, we stopped pointing the finger. Instead we sought to improve processes. Today, our hospital has specific anti-bullying policies. I like to believe a Faith today would be quickly identified for remediation. If our unit can change, so can any workplace in any profession.
Finally, age and wisdom change your perspective. For years, I considered my fight with Faith the most stupid and humiliating thing I had done. I hated when anyone mentioned it. Before smart phones and social media, the “Nurses Saint Patrick’s Day Catfight” became a local urban legend. With each passing year, more fiction replaced fact. In later versions of the story, Faith and I stripped each other naked. In other versions, we destroyed each other’s tits. Some stories even claimed we performed sex acts on each other. I’ve learned sometimes it’s best to just have a good laugh.
Peace and Blessings,