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Patient hospital room

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Waking up when the morning is still dark, Jerry Lucas gets into his truck for a 45-minute drive into downtown Louisville to University Hospital.

“I'm always wondering how is today going to go,” Lucas said. “Will I have somebody that will strike out, or will it be a day I'm actually going to see patients that need that care and who appreciate what we do?”

Because for Lucas — helping others is in his blood. He started out as a combat medic with the United States Army. His career spanned 12 years, three months and 13 days. His nursing career is now going on 30 years and counting. He even volunteered after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“It is a passion to be a nurse — the only thing well I do in my life,” he said.

Lucas now works in the Emergency Department at University Hospital. It’s a job he loves but one that has a dark cloud hanging over him and other nurses.

“It's a tough job,” he said. “I've been punched in the jaw and punched in the neck. I have been spit on before. I have had bodily fluids thrown at me.”

He's not the only one. WDRB News requested employee assault reports from University Medical Center over the last four years. They reveal hundreds of instances of hospital staff being physically and verbally assaulted. From broken bones to concussions, being kicked, choked, sexually assaulted, stabbed with utensils and pregnant nurses being punched in the abdomen — the list goes on.

In Kentucky, most of these types of assaults would be considered misdemeanor crimes. But by law, if the same thing happened to an EMS worker, it would be a felony.

“When does that make sense? Lucas asked. "Why are we not covered? Why are we not taking this more seriously?”

Some states have passed laws to make punishment more severe for assaults on nurses. It's a move Lucas thinks could help in Kentucky. 

“I would say it is a problem," said Dr. Jason Smith, the chief medical officer of University Of Louisville Health. "It is something we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis."

Lately, Smith said there's been a bigger recognition of the problem that's been underlying the health care system for a long time. He believes a lot of it has to do with drug abuse and mental illness.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health care workers have a 20% higher chance of being a victim of workplace violence than other workers.

“And the people were accepting things that I would look around and say, 'That's not acceptable,'" Smith said. "And we really made a push for them to report anything and everything."

Sometimes, the problem leaks outside hospital doors. Lucas recalls one night after a shift, a combative patient followed him out to his car and harassed him.

“I turned and I told him, ‘Sir, I don't know what your problem is. And I know that you feel you have some legitimate claim to do harm to me. But at this point, if you do not leave me alone, one of us is going to walk out of this parking lot, and it's not going to be you,’" Lucas said. "And think about that. I'm a nurse. My job is to save lives ... and then I'm telling him what I'm going to do to him if he won't leave me alone. That's crazy. That’s insane."

The hospital said it's working to protect it's employees better.

“We want to provide a safe environment for our nurses, physicians, patients, our families," Smith said. "We will do everything we can to do that."

Smith said over the past few years, they've implemented de-escalation training, security is staffed 24/7, LMPD is on site 16 hours a day, 7 days a week and "no tolerance" policy signs are placed throughout the hospital.

“There's a lot I think we're trying, but I don't think there's going to be one magic solution to fixing this problem,” Smith said.

That’s why Lucas is now deciding to shine a light on the violence with the hope that someday, something might change.

“I am a nurse," he said. "I care about people. But I don't deserve to be beat up or cussed out at work."

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