GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Becky Kutsche got into health care because she wanted to make a difference.

One of her children was born with Down syndrome. The doctors and nurses made her feel cared for and understood. They made a difference, and she wanted to have the same impact.

“I just thought, someday, I want to change the world because I can’t imagine going home every day and seeing what they did, feeling like I think I saved someone’s life today,” Kutsche explained of her decision to get into the medical field after spending years taking care of her children at home.

She worked her way up in the hospital, becoming a registered nurse in March 2020 just as the pandemic hit the U.S. What she didn’t imagine was the mistrust she would see from patients.

In the U.S., violence against health care workers has been going up for the last decade. It took an even sharper turn at the start of the pandemic.

The International Committee of the Red Cross compiles data on COVID-19-related attacks against health care workers. It published a guide that noted incidents of harassment, threats or stigma due to allegations employees were spreading the virus.

According to new data from Spectrum Health, the surge in violence is evident in West Michigan. It shows the upward trend of violence started before the pandemic, with a 24% increase from 2018 to 2019. It also surged another 57% from 2019 to 2020, with another 17% increase the following year.

“People who are frustrated in the checkout line (at the grocery store) don’t think they can assault the clerk and get away with it, but for some reason, health care has operated that way,” said Matt Brinkman, the senior director of security at Spectrum Health.

Brinkman said the most common issues involve disputes over COVID-19 policies, like mask requirements and visitor restrictions.  His team has started offering education to employees about their options for pressing charges against patients or visitors who assault them. Most of the time, he said it doesn’t lead to that.

“Let’s face it, people already aren’t having a good day when they come to the hospital. You add (COVID-19) on top of it, and it’s just causing people to act in ways that they probably normally wouldn’t just because of the amount of stress they’re under,” he said. 

The increase in violence has prompted Spectrum Health executives to enact two new measures — security and awareness. It includes a badge certain employees, like nurses, now wear with three raised buttons that can be pressed in case of emergency.

“If a staff member is feeling like they’re in a threatening situation, or there may be a need for security, they can push any of the buttons…. and it will alert security that there is a need. It also tells security exactly where that staff member is,” explained Josh Kooistra, the chief medical officer at Spectrum Health.

In addition to the badges, the health system has also started a new campaign called Behind the Mask with posters in patient rooms, hospital hallways, and the community. The idea is to help community members understand that behind every medical mask is a mother, father, wife, neighbor or someone else simply trying to help.

“We recognize how stressful the pandemic has been on all of us. We would like our community to recognize how stressful it’s been on the people who are caring for them as well,” said Kooistra. “We’re tired, we’re exhausted, and we continue to see COVID numbers that are very high… our hospitals continue to be at or over capacity.”

It means wait times are longer for everything from getting admitted into a room or transferred to a skilled nursing facility.

Kooistra has noticed patients and families surprised and frustrated by those situations. He hopes that educating the community and sharing information with visitors will help.

“Standard operating procedures for care that was delivered, say, two years ago, before the pandemic, are different now… We need our community to recognize that we are doing the absolute best that we can to provide high-quality, safe care,” he added.

The hospital also teaches staff members de-escalation techniques to help avoid getting security involved.

“These are things like talking to somebody with empathy, recognizing that their situation is challenging, and the stress that the patient or caregiver or family member may be under…. acknowledging that it’s OK to be frustrated and to have these feelings, but what’s not OK is to take out that frustration and aggression on our team,” Kooistra said.

Kutsche has noticed the need for education even more after the debut of the Behind the Mask campaign.

“We’ve had people who are like, oh, are you guys really getting mistreated? We’re like, unfortunately, yes,” she said.

She has had to call security multiple times on patients who threatened to hit or actually hit or kicked her and spit on her. She noted that the badge does make her feel safer.

Beyond the verbal and physical attacks, Kutsche explained that the mistrust has hampered her ability to do her job well. For example, she recalled one situation recently where a family member questioned every step of the care she was giving to their loved one.

“I can be as sympathetic as I can, but they’re still aggressive questions,” she said. “I would say I don’t have time for this, but I can transfer you to my charge nurse who then has to take away from the floor care because they’re running around helping each and every nurse on our floor and trying to accommodate patients and move them,” she explained.

Despite the challenges, she has no plans to leave the hospital or her coworkers who she said rely on each other as informal therapists. In addition to formal therapy, they all take advantage of it to help them deal with the current climate. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, she felt that the community considered frontline workers as heroes, but that has changed in the last two years. Although she doesn’t want a pat on the back, she does appreciate small gestures.

“Sometimes, it just takes those little things. When I see an act of kindness, it just restores a little bit of humanity in my heart,” she said.