Dallas hospital shooting marks latest attack on healthcare workers

Three deadly shootings have taken place at U.S. hospital campuses since June. Groups representing nurses and doctors are urging lawmakers and health systems to do more to protect staff.

The fatal shooting of two healthcare workers in a Dallas hospital illustrates the growing violence being seen at hospitals across America.

The shooting at the Methodist Dallas Medical Center Saturday is the third deadly shooting at a U.S. hospital complex since June, and healthcare workers have been injured in many other attacks.

Groups representing doctors and nurses have urged health systems and lawmakers to take steps to protect healthcare workers. The violence is driving doctors and nurses out of hospitals, health groups say.

Authorities say a man shot and killed two employees in the maternity ward of Methodist Dallas Medical Center. A hospital police officer shot and wounded the suspect, who is in custody, police said.

Police identified the two victims as Jacqueline Pokuaa, 45, and Katie Flowers, 63, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Pokuaa served as a patient case manager and Flowers was a nurse, the Star-Telegram reported.

Authorities identified the suspect as Nestor Hernandez, 30, and said he was on parole following an aggravated assault conviction. Hernandez was permitted to be in the hospital by the Texas corrections department because his girlfriend was having a baby, according to media accounts.

Hernandez reportedly thought his girlfriend had been involved with someone else and began beating her in the hospital room, WFAA-TV reported, citing court documents. Authorities said Hernandez threatened to kill her and would shoot anyone else who entered the room.

When Pokuaa entered the patient’s room, Hernandez fatally shot her, authorities said. Flowers heard the gunshot and looked into the room, and the suspect shot her while she she stood in the hallway, police said in a news release Monday. The patient was treated for her injuries and her baby, who was in the room at the time of the incident, was unharmed, police said.

Methodist Health System leadership issued a statement following the shooting.

“The Methodist Health System Family is heartbroken at the loss of two of our beloved team members,” the system said in a statement. “Our entire organization is grieving this unimaginable tragedy.”

The hospital said it has increased police staffing on campus, including the maternity unit, WFAA reported.

‘Hearts are broken’

The Texas Hospital Association said in a statement, "The entire Texas hospital community grieves with Methodist Health System for the two health care heroes who lost their lives in Saturday's tragic shooting. Our hearts are with the families and health care workers who are left in the wake of this senseless act of violence."

The fatal shooting in Dallas shattered healthcare workers, even as they say they have seen far too much violence recently.

“Our hearts are broken,” Serena Bumpus, CEO of the Texas Nurses Association, said in a statement.

The group also noted it has worked with other healthcare organizations to curb workplace violence, albeit with little success.

“This is unacceptable,” Bumpus said in a statement. “No person should fear for their life for merely going to work, especially a nurse or healthcare worker whose passion is to help others heal. We hope our legislators understand that we need to protect our healthcare workers.”

Jenn Schmitz, president of the Emergency Nurses Association, said her organization is mourning the victims.

“ENA grieves with the family, friends and colleagues of two Methodist Dallas Medical Center staff members whose lives were taken in a senseless act of violence on Saturday,” Schmitz said in a statement.

“Health care workers driven by a desire to help others should not go to work worried about their personal safety or if they will make it home from their shift,” she said. “ENA continues to strongly advocate for measures that will mitigate workplace violence to take meaningful steps toward preventing future tragedies by better protecting health care workers.”

Four people were killed in a shooting at a medical building on the campus of the Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, Okla. in June. Authorities said the suspect was upset because of postoperative pain. Two doctors, a receptionist and a patient were killed.

In Arkansas, a suspect shot and killed a man visiting a patient at a hospital just outside Little Rock, Arkansas. Authorities said the victim was the patient’s fiancee, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

While the Arkansas shooting wasn’t aimed at healthcare workers, scores of doctors and nurses have been assaulted in hospitals, and many of those attacks don’t make headlines. Many healthcare providers say violent incidents in hospitals have become more common in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most emergency doctors say violence is rising, according to a poll released last month by the American College of Emergency Physicians.

Overall, 85% of emergency doctors who participated in the survey said there has been at least some increase in violence in the past five years. Over half (55%) said they were physically assaulted. Nine out of 10 (90%) doctors said emergency department violence is hurting patient care, and adding to the long waits some patients are seeing while awaiting treatment.

Despite the rise in assaults, hospitals rarely press charges against the attackers, the poll indicated. Only 2% of respondents said hospital security pressed charges, and that’s adding to the danger for emergency department staff, said Chris Kang, president-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

“The lack of consequences … is believed to be a significant contributor to the rise of violence since 2018,” Kang said in a September media call.

The violence is prompting some doctors and nurses to reconsider their career choices, the organization says.

About half of all hospital nurses said workplace violence is rising, according to an April poll by National Nurses United. Nurses have said the growing threats are contributing to burnout.

Legislative measures

Healthcare groups have complained that there’s no federal law granting specific protections for healthcare workers. Lawmakers have introduced legislative remedies but it’s unclear if they will receive action in the near future.

U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Larry Bucshon, an Indiana Republican and a doctor, introduced the bipartisan Safety From Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act in June. The legislation would impose tougher penalties on those who attack and intimidate health system employees. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee in June.

The American Hospital Association, which has endorsed the House bill, has urged President Biden’s administration and lawmakers to enact greater protections for healthcare workers. The AHA sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in March and urged him to strengthen protections for hospital workers, pointing to federal laws protecting airline and airport workers.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., has introduced legislation directing the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require healthcare and social service organizations to create workplace violence prevention plans. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., last year.