The episode that changed Dana Morrison's life lasted only moments and began with her doing what this dedicated nurse always has done: looking out for her patient. But it ended with Dana enduring tremendous pain, being knocked out of the work force, and then facing the slings and arrows of a workers' comp system that never was all that kind to employees and now threatens to get even worse.
Dana, idled, wants only to receive her due from workers comp and put her injury-riddled year behind her. Oh, yes, and she also wants to be part of Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposed reforms to workers comp.
"There are problems with workers comp," she says. "If you put a nurse in there to do it, they'd have it fixed in no times."
Dana's odyssey through the workers comp system began in January 2002. At the time she was a hemodialysis nurse at a new clinic in Yuba City, doing work that essentially de-toxified the blood of patients whose kidneys had either failed or were not working.
It was by no means her first nursing assignment. A Santa Barbara native, she has been in nursing since 1971 in California and Nevada and "I've done just about everything in nursing that you can: Indian health services, patient care" and all manner of other work. She is an RN, CRRN, certified Director of Staff Development, certified to teach FAS/FAE, and certified to teach about AIDS/HIV.
Dana, 53, an articulate and dynamic woman, also describes herself as a "rabble rouser. My patients come first. I'm a professional busybody who's a nurse."
One late January afternoon, a frail man came to the clinic's door, propelling himself with a walker or a cane and carrying his oxygen. He was "a very sweet man," Dana recalls, in his 80s, with heart and lung conditions.
The man fell. "I heard a plunk and there he was, laying face down. He had hit his head." Dana's training kicked in automatically. "I said 'Oh, my god, my patient's laying on the floor.' He was three feet away." She went to his aid, going down on her knees to assess his condition. . "It wasn't like I had a choice," she says. "When there's an emergency it's the RN's responsibility." The man himself was embarrassed, but couldn't get back up unaided.
A male technician arrived and he and Dana each took a side. Squatting, they began to hoist him back to his feet. "Halfway up, my right knee went 'bing!' The pain was, oh my god." But if she had taken care of the knee, "he would have gone down again." That was unthinkable: the patient always comes first.
Dana tried to work through the injury, even though "there's a lot of walking. There are 15 stations. You walk back and forth all over the place." But, she figured, "I've got patients to take care of" and that is what she did. Later when she went home she took some ibuprofen. Her boss called and told her to go to the occupational health clinic. He made the appointment.
The clinic doctor prescribed anti-inflammatories but no work restrictions. "I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, I was the only RN, I was charting, the clinic had just opened. Each day I worked it got worse."
Finally, Dana got to see an orthopedic surgeon, who put her on restrictions: eight hours a day maximum, and sit as often as possible. The pain still found its way through, because "even when you sit there are a lot of ups and downs." She called him again, "basically in tears," but nothing changed and "the pain kept getting worse."
Soon, "the bigwigs showed up" from the corporate headquarters in Boston. By then, Dana had "raised hell, written the Labor Commission and all kinds of (stuff)."
A woman from headquarters spoke to her. "The first thing out of her mouth was not, 'how are you doing?' It was, 'this isn't workers' comp because you already had an injury.'"
Dana had had a knee injury from her horse-riding days as a teen-ager, and also had some arthritis in the knee. "But it never kept me from doing anything." Still, the company sought to use this 30-year-old injury as an excuse to keep from kicking in the workers comp. Eventually, "workers comp finally conceded that I was hurt at work." At the end of April, Dana underwent arthroscopic surgery. That left her on crutches.
Then she had knee replacement surgery, continued on crutches and eventually changed to a cane in February 2003. She stopped work April 13 and has not worked since.
A month after that, workers comp began to pay Dana based on two-thirds of her income. Her yearly take plummeted from $50,000 to $20,000. The checks were routinely late and, coupled with the fact that she was not making as much money, forced her to run through her vacation and sick time and miss some bill payments. That, in turn, hurt her credit.
Workers Comp, arguing that her injury was already present when she went to lift up her patient, declared Dana 50 percent disabled, a percentage that Dana disagrees with. She can barely bend her knee, cannot be on her feet longer than 20 minutes, and is unable to kneel, squat or lift anything heavier than 20 pounds.
Dana continues to fight, although right now what she would like most is to start up her life again. "I'd like to go back to what I was doing, but there are no positions open to me because of the restrictions. There are some sedentary jobs." She thinks perhaps she could work as a consultant.
Dana has taken a long hard look at the workers comp system and Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposals to 'reform' it. Her most recent perspective is that of an injured worker, but she has seen the issue from both sides. When she was in risk management, "I always tried to do what was best for the employee because that is what was best for the company."
She says she has "seen the fakes, but I've also seen legitimate injured workers who got the shaft. You can't leave it alone, because it needs fixing."
But Schwarzenegger is about to make it worse, she believes, because he is catering to business.
"I have yet to listen to a health care executive that is not adept at dancing around the real problem..."
"You need to make it equitable," Dana says. What Schwarzenegger is proposing will "make it harder on my profession."
She has specific proposals, such as basing the disability on 100 percent of salary rather than two-thirds, and not keeping people waiting so long for a resolution of their case.
But her larger point is that the reforms need to be fair to all, and that can happen only if all points of view are included. "The governor needs to get out of it totally. He needs to get a mix of people working on workers comp reform: lawyers, employers, blue collar workers." And of course, nurses. "Nurses who work the regular floors with a wide range of patients ..and who work hands on in skilled nursing facilities."
"Unless it's equitable, there's not going to be a benefit to workers, employers or anyone else in the end. If workers get hurt and can't get the care they need and deserve, then that's one less employee, a decrease in productivity, and a decrease in profits. It's a vicious circle."