No more unguarded moments for Port Lincoln hospital nurses and midwives 

2 January 2023

Article from January 2023 edition of INPractice

It was with some irony, and perhaps not entirely unexpected, that on the very afternoon a number of health luminaries converged on Port Lincoln Hospital to announce and celebrate the introduction of 24/7 security guards, a Code Black was called.  

That was back on September 12, and as ANMF (SA Branch) CEO/Secretary Adj Associate Professor Elizabeth Dabars AM met with members to congratulate them on their sterling advocacy for increased security, a commotion suddenly broke out. 

A patient was yelling and screaming at staff and patients, with concerned orderlies in hot pursuit.

But then again Code Blacks are the norm at Port Lincoln Hospital, almost a daily occurrence as indeed they are at so many health facilities across the state. 

The ANMF (SA Branch) was aware of at least 20 individuals being injured in Port Lincoln Hospital incidents from last June to September, including patients, nurses, doctors, orderlies, even a police officer attending a call-out.

Prior to the advent of 24/7 restraint-trained security guards, Port Lincoln Hospital staff had to rely on calling SAPOL in the event of a Code Black and hope that they respond in time before someone gets seriously hurt. 

In one notorious incident in October, 2021, the entire Port Lincoln SAPOL on-duty force, six police officers, had to restrain a man who punched a doctor in the emergency department and attempted to spit on and bite other staff. 

Then of course there was the appalling case of the brutal bashing of a nurse in August, 2019, by an 18-year-old male boxer in the grip of a psychotic episode. 
Amanda Treagus was working in Port Lincoln’s Eyre Ward B (which treats mental health, palliative and aged care patients) when she was attacked. She suffered severe bruising, facial scarring, whiplash, concussion, recurring headaches and nausea due to pinched nerves and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You’ve taken away my trust, faith in humanity and compassion,” Ms Treagus said in her victim impact statement to the court.
“To be hit again and again until you’re cowering in a corner … I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, this isn’t going to stop’.
“If one punch landed slightly in a different spot on my skull, I would not be alive today, I’m certain of that.” 

The case made national headlines with the perpetrator, Jiah Thomas Chesher, found not guilty by reason of mental incompetence of aggravated causing harm with intent to cause harm.

After the assault, Chesher was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. 
He was released into the community under the care of Forensic Mental Health Services and a community corrections officer. He was also banned from drinking alcohol or taking any drugs that are not medically prescribed for the period of the 26-month limiting term. 

Chesher was also banned from visiting Port Lincoln and approaching Ms Treagus. 

On the day of the assault Chesher’s parents had rung an ambulance for their son after he had “stood motionless in the kitchen for about an hour”, the ABC reported at  the time. 

The court heard a police officer had travelled in the ambulance, because there was a risk he might be violent. He had been escorted into the hospital by police and then left with Ms Treagus unattended. 

“It’s clear and highlights perhaps how vulnerable the alleged victim was in this situation,” Chesher’s lawyer told the court. 

“A registered nurse without support having to care for Mr Chesher. That’s the sad situation, particularly in cases where [in] community hospitals there’s limited resources.” 

The sheer savagery of the attack ignited a determination by hospital staff and the ANMF (SA Branch) to pressure SA Health into installing 24/7 restraint-trained security guards at the hospital.

Ms Dabars noted that in June 2021 the Whyalla and Port Augusta hospitals committed to 24/7 on-site restraint-trained security guards after a staggering 22 assaults against nurses in little over a month. Our condemnation of the violence and lack of security received not just regional but nationwide media coverage through News Corp and ABC platforms. 

“That commitment (by the Whyalla and Port Augusta hospitals) has led to a dramatic de-escalation in violence, with staff saying they feel far more secure at work,’’ Ms Dabars said in 2021. 

“It beggars belief that Port Lincoln Hospital continues to send staff into an unsafe working environment, particular after a nurse was almost killed in one  of their wards. 

“We continue to call for the implementation of 24/7 on-site restraint-trained security guards as a matter of urgency and as a potential matter of life and death,’’ she said. 

“To describe it as such is not an overdramatisation, given that just one punch can kill, let alone a boxer throwing repeated punches.’’ 

The ANMF (SA Branch) repeatedly called out violence at the hospital, achieving mainstream media exposure about the  lack of security at Port Lincoln on  numerous occasions. 

Early last year we launched a campaign calling on members and the Port Lincoln community to join our petition urging hospital management and politicians to instate 24/7 security guards. 

Petition signatures exceeded 1,500 in a matter of days, highlighting the community’s genuine concern for their health workers.  In fact, many members of the community were very surprised to learn of the lack of security at the hospital. They had taken it for granted. 

“The previous Marshall government ignored our concerns,’’ Ms Dabars said. “The irony or hypocrisy being that Parliament House on North Terrace has a very heavy security presence whilst Port Lincoln nurses, who are often exposed to people in a state of alcohol, drug or psychosis-fuelled rage,  were basically left to fend for themselves.’’
But that all soon changed with election of the Malinauskas Government, which won power on a platform largely committed to addressing the health issues in this state.
“We applaud the Minister for Health and Wellbeing Chris Picton for listening to us about the concerns of the nurses and midwives working in Port Lincoln,”  Ms Dabars said of the new Government’s deployment of 24/7 security guards. 
“We now want to see 24/7 security guards deployed in other regional hospitals. 

“We will continue to work for the implementation of a 10-point plan to combat violence and aggression. It will make sure that any workplace design goes to prevent violence, that people are educated on how to handle the issues, and that the issues are, in fact, taken seriously by management and executives,’’ Ms Dabars said.
“Labor committed to the 10-point plan prior to the election and we have established a work plan with the Department for Health and Wellbeing for its implementation in all health networks.’’

Click here to read the January 2023 edition of INPractice.