Sinai-Grace workers say they were told to leave hospital after COVID-19 sit-in

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — A group of nightshift emergency room nurses and attendings were told to leave DMC's Sinai-Grace hospital late Sunday night after they staged a sit-in to demand more support to treat a surge of COVID-19 patients, they said.

Sal Hadwan, right, an emergency room attending, says he was dismissed from DMC's Sinai-Grace on Sunday night.

Health care workers say each nurse is single-handedly tending to 20 or more patients at a time and forced to continuously wear the same personal protective equipment for 24 hours.

Sal Hadwan, an emergency room attending who was dismissed, told The Detroit News that he and nurses staged the sit-in inside their breakroom to voice concerns to management before their shift started Sunday night at the west side hospital.

"We need more help because we’ve been working under extreme conditions," said Hadwan, who has worked at the hospital for three years. "We told them we need additional staff and went to check on patients. 

"Four hours later, at 11:30 p.m., (management) asked us what is your final decision? We said we're sticking up for what we believe in. At that point, we were told, you can leave." 

Seven night-shift workers left the hospital hugging, reflecting on the commitment they made for the safety of their patients, family and themselves, he said. Day-shift nurses supported the sit-in and stayed for 24 hours to cover the nurses who left.

DMC said in a statement Monday that they were disappointed in the workers involved in the sit-in but acknowledge this is a challenging time for caregivers.

DMC's Sinai-Grace hospital

"We are disappointed that last night a very small number of nurses at Sinai-Grace Hospital staged a work stoppage in the hospital refusing to care for patients. Despite this, our patients continued to receive the care they needed as other dedicated nurses stepped in to provide care," the hospital said.

DMC has repeatedly declined to disclose numbers of COVID-19 patients it's treating or how many staff have been impacted by the virus. The hospital did release a statement to The Detroit News on Saturday that read: “We are committed to the safety of our dedicated staff. We are taking every step necessary to protect them as they provide care to our patients. We have a process in place to screen any employee who is experiencing signs or symptoms of COVID-19.”

Hadwan, who also serves as a member of the Hamtramck Board of Education, said the conditions inside the hospital are challenging.

On Sunday night, there were 10 nurses staffed for 68 COVID-19 patients in the isolated emergency room and an additional 20 patients in the hospital's extension, he said. Patients are being spread out on beds along each side of the hallways.

For the last three weeks, their average daily intake was 110 to 120 COVID-19 patients, and emergency rooms can't send patients to other floors due to a lack of staffing, he said.

"Since COVID started, these are who are coming to the ER are actually sick, they need oxygen, ventilators and multiple medications drips just to keep them alive and stable," Hadwan said. "It’s unsafe for patients to have one nurse tending to 25 or more patients. It's unrealistic and dangerous to try to keep up."

Hadwan said Sunday's action wasn't a walkout, and they didn't want to leave. After calls from his manager to hospital administration, he and the nurses returned to work Monday night, he said.

"All we want to do is care for our patients. People are dying who honestly shouldn’t be in those situations if only we had enough nurses to help," he said. "We have about 14 or 15 ventilators, and it isn't enough. It's not even close."

Jamie Brown, president of the Michigan Nurses Association and a critical care nurse at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, said it's "only a matter of time before more actions like these occur."

"Nurses around the state are desperately doing everything we can to keep our patients and ourselves safe," Brown said in a statement. "Eventually, a tipping point is reached where the best thing any RN can do for their patients, their families and their coworkers is to speak out rather than remain silent."

The health care workers aren't the first to speak out.

Registered nurse Kenisa Barkai said the DMC fired her on March 27 after posting a social media video of her gearing up from head-to-toe to see a coronavirus patient inside Sinai-Grace hospital.

Barkai previously worked as a floating nurse with DMC for 11 years and was the first nurse to speak out about the hospital being overwhelmed with patients. During the week of March 16, she was taking care of COVID patients and non-COVID patients without protective care. She voiced her concerns to management fearing cross-contamination between patients.

She said there's been a lack of staffing and supplies before the pandemic crisis hit Detroit and threatened to report the hospital to accreditors. 

"They terminated me for violating social media policy," she told The News. "They would just bring up patients from the ER to different units, and we were forced to take care of them. I was taking care of four regular patients and two COVID patients because another ER nurse did a walk-off that week and was just told, 'we're in a pandemic right now, you have to.' "

Caring for COVID-19 patients is complicated, said Barkai, a mother from Woodhaven.

"It’s hard to be the only person going into those rooms, you’re doing everything, bringing in their food, being the housekeeper, taking them to the bathroom and with all that gear, garbage would just fill up and fill up. I made sure I had everything before going in because you risk yourself each time," she said. 

Barkai said the virus also is impacting the health care worker population.

"I have so many co-workers who are home right now and some in the ICU so sick that they're getting moved up," she said. "So many people are calling in sick and others are running on empty."

She said nurses were forced to wear the same protective gear for 24 hours straight. 

"It's just a sad, sad story right now, and we're just told to put-up and shut-up. But at what cost? We're expected to go into battle with no equipment to do so," she said.

Barkai started a GoFundMe for her fellow front-line workers. With many working around the clock, the funds will support meals and any home care needed.

"To take me away from that, I feel nurse guilt and have been sick about it," she said. "I see and listen to my coworkers who are struggling every day, and I feel terrible that I'm not at the bedside to help."

DMC said its personal protective equipment use and conservation are directed by the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

"We have put those in place because as the number of cases is still rising quickly, we are committed to advanced planning to minimize the risk of shortages," the hospital said. "While we can safely care for our patients with the supplies we currently have, our team is actively sourcing for additional supplies.

"Like many other health systems, we have temporarily implemented strategies for PPE conservation, consistent with CDC guidance, to address continued availability of PPE and safe treatment of patients.”

Jim Rasor, a Royal Oak attorney representing Barkai in her whistleblower suit, said Barkai's termination violates whistleblower statute laws.

"Prior to COVID 19, she was telling DMC that she was going to report them for working conditions and patient care that had been systemic," Rasor said. "The staffing at Sinai-Grace was always out of whack, and this small seven-second video was an excuse to fire her."

► More: Help with COVID-19 patients or lose job, Beaumont Health says

DMC's alleged issues come as Beaumont Health, the state's largest health care system, informed employees on Friday that anyone who refuses a transfer to work with COVID-19 patients will be considered to have resigned and ineligible for future employment.

Adding to the stress is the news of deaths and hospitalizations of colleagues and concerns over shortages of protective equipment. A resident surgeon at Ascension Macomb Hospital died this weekend of suspected COVID-19 and a longtime Henry Ford Health System nurse died in her home last week after telling relatives she had been exposed when at work without proper protection.

Michigan now has more than 15,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the nation's third-highest state totals. As of Monday, Detroit's Health Department is reporting 5,032 cases of COVID-19 — an increase of 475 cases in a 24-hour span — and 196 total deaths. That's 29 more Detroit deaths than what the city logged on Sunday. 

"We need help, and we need the hospitals to advocate for it," Hadwan said.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_