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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

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Safeguard Magazine

Aftermath: Sharleen Harney

The Waikato Hospital security guard was badly beaten by a mental health patient. An employment agreement with her security company prevents her talking to the media, but her daughter, Tajuana Eltringham, told JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM about the incident that almost killed her mother.

Mum started work as a security guard at the hospital about three years ago. Before that she was at home with my younger brother and sister, who are now 8 and 10. It’s hard work, and she does long hours – 12-hour shifts, three days on, three days off, and then three night shifts. Often they’re short staffed and she’s asked to work a fourth shift. She loves her job, and the people. She’s known as the one who can talk patients down when they’re upset.

What happened on that night in May 2019?

At about two in the morning she got what they call a triple-7 call from the mental health unit, which means some sort of incident where the staff need help. The message was that a patient was running up the stairwell and they were worried he was going to jump. By the time she got to the ward he’d assaulted four staff. She didn’t know what she was walking into, but as soon as he saw her bright yellow jacket he just came for her with an oxygen tank. Mum told the nursing staff to get out of the way and ran into a small lounge, thinking she’d be able to block the door with a chair, but the chairs were joined together and she couldn’t move them. He followed her in and whacked her over the head with the cylinder several times. That’s the last thing she remembers.

Fortunately one of the other security guys was also following up the triple-7. When he got there Mum was on the floor, unconscious, but he was able to subdue the guy and get him away from her.

When did you hear what had happened?

I got a phone call soon afterwards, when she was in ED. They just said she’d been assaulted but was ok. I think Mum told them to say that because she knows I get really anxious. I had a gut feeling something wasn’t right, but I had my young brother and sister at home with me, as well as my daughter, so I couldn’t just go to the hospital. Mum lives with us, and in the morning when she didn’t come home my older brother rang her phone. One of the other security guards answered and explained what had happened, and that it was more serious than what they’d told me. We dropped the kids off to morning care at 7.30 and went up to the hospital. She was in the High Dependency Unit and looked really bad. Her face was swollen and there were cuts on her head and face and arms. I just burst into tears and ran out.

What were her injuries?

She’d fractured most of the bones in her face – broken nose, broken eye socket, a crack in her skull and two broken wrists. She also had lacerations to her fingers with the ligaments sticking out, and concussion. She looked so bad we couldn’t bring the children in to see her for about two weeks.

What treatment did she have?

Over the first couple of months she had four lots of surgery. The first sewed back the ligaments in her left hand and manipulated the bones in her right wrist back into place so they could put on a cast. The next one, about two weeks later when the swelling was down a bit, was facial reconstruction. They put a plate in one eye socket, a small plate on the other, and screws through her nose. She was discharged not long after that, but one day she heard the bones in her right wrist pop when she was putting on a dressing gown. The next time she went for a check at the hospital they found it had moved, so she had surgery to put in a plate. About a month later they found the scaphoid bone in her left wrist was broken too. She was pretty pissed off about that, because they should have known earlier. They’d missed it in the beginning because they left her watch on when they did the x-rays. But when she came home her hand therapist asked for another x-ray because her wrist was still so sore. They found the scaphoid bone had completely split in half, so she had to have a bone graft and a screw put through it.

How did the family cope through all this?

It was hard. I was studying at Wintec, so I was dropping the kids off at school, going to the hospital, then to Wintec, then to the hospital again, before collecting the kids. Sometimes I’d go back to in the evenings too, after the kids were in bed. It was two weeks after the accident before we could take the kids to see Mum. I brought them up to see her just before the facial reconstruction surgery, when the swelling had gone done a lot. But then her face completely swelled up again, and they had to wait almost another week. Fortunately she came home just after that.

How did your mum feel about what was going on?

She was pissed off that she’d lost her independence. That was the main issue for her. My mum’s a very independent person, so she was frustrated that she’d lost the ability to do simple things, like making her own breakfast or getting herself dressed, and had to have a person in to help her shower. The first week she was home she shut herself in the bathroom and had to be let out because she couldn’t turn the door handle. We had to tape down the latch so she could just push it open.

How long before she could return to work?

Just under six months. She’d been keen to get back from the start but had to wait for her wrist and brain to heal. She didn’t have any memory loss but getting back into the routine of night shifts was difficult She could only do day shifts to start with because the head injury meant she tired easily and would be asleep by eight every night. She had to pretty much retrain her brain to be able to do night shifts, but she was back on them within a month or two.

Did she have any anxiety about going back to work?

She wasn’t anxious about the place. She got us to take her down to the ward where it happened when she was still in hospital. She said she wasn’t going to let the man who did this ruin her career. But she did have anxiety about her uniform jacket. She couldn’t use the high-viz yellow vest – just couldn’t put it on – because she felt like she was being suffocated by it. But she’s been able to change it for one that looks completely different, so that’s ok.

Was her attacker prosecuted?

No. They were looking at a charge of grievous bodily harm with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, which is pretty much the same as attempted murder, but he’s a special patient so no charges were laid. What annoys Mum most is she’s lost work from this. Because the guy’s still in Henry Bennett [the mental health unit] she’s not allowed to go there. She’d been trained to work there, and not everyone is, so before she could often pick up extra shifts. Now she can only work in the main hospital extra shifts are harder to get. It’s pretty much a case of the victim pays the price.

Were there any changes in the way things are done after the assault?

The ward where mum was assaulted now has the oxygen tanks in another room so they’re not visible. And there was a rule that security staff couldn’t go anywhere unless they were in pairs, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t happening, because they’re always under-staffed.

How do you feel about your mum being back at work?

They said if she’d had one more hit to the head she wouldn’t have made it. That’s scary, but when my mum puts her mind to something there’s no changing it. She loves her job, and she does it well. She’s usually pretty good at handling situations, but that night she didn’t get the right information. She’s doing pretty good now, and to have her here is a blessing. I don’t know what I’d do if she wasn’t here.


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