How would you cope if you found one of your team carrying out a deliberate act of sabotage?
How would you feel if one of your nurses was involved in a crime against your patients?
How would you face the press? Handle the police presence?
Help support staff through the stress of media intrusion and public distrust?
At Nursing Times Directors’ Congress this week, Judith Morris, chief nurse at Stockport Foundation Trust, revealed exactly what she did in the face of all of this when Stepping Hill hospital fell in the media spotlight after nurse Victorino Chua tampered with saline and poisoned 19 patients, killing two.
The conference room of chief nurses and directors of nursing fell silent as she revealed what had happened and how it affected her and her team.
The police presence was everywhere, staff were approached by press in the car park to try to get their stories, members of the media were trying to break into the hospital and social media often broke any developments in the case before the staff knew about them. The pressure on that chief nurse and her staff was relentless.
”The conference room of chief nurses and directors of nursing fell silent as she revealed what had happened”
After all the media maelstrom around the case, it was fascinating to hear the facts directly from Judith. Chief nurses around the room listened intently – all because they knew it could happen to them. There are, after all, no checks in the world that can protect you from hiring someone who can sabotage care in this way.
She pointed out that concerns about the spiked saline had actually been raised by her own nursing staff and that their vigilance detected the crimes in the first instance.
”Staff were approached by press in the car park to try to get their stories”
Her and her board’s response to the crimes was, I have to say, impeccable.
She acted with incredible dignity, putting together a plan to support staff in the unit, and the rest of the trust to help them cope with media intrusion and police presence while still running a hospital.
Judith emphasised what she had learnt from the experience – the key learning was that you should be as open and transparent as you can be with the press and families because if you don’t share what you know, people will fill in the void with detail.
”Her consistent message to the press was that the hospital was safe”
Her consistent message to the press was that this was a deliberate act of sabotage but that the hospital was safe and that staff delivered high-quality care.
But it wasn’t just coping with the reputational damage Victorino Chua did to Stepping Hill, she had to manage the aftermath. Judith had to backfill nursing shifts when huge numbers of the staff were being called as witnesses and many were off long-term sick with the stress.
”What’s remarkable is that many people who worked in that same unit where the crimes are discovered are still working there today”
What’s remarkable is that many people who worked in that same unit where the crimes are discovered are still working there today. The team is motivated and the public trust the staff and supported them. That’s a pretty incredible feat, and one that has definitely been influenced by Judith’s response to the tragedy.
There are no course modules on how one handles criminal activity and the ensuing glare of the national media. No one teaches you in your nursing degree how to behave with dignity when the press camp on your doorstep. No one demonstrates how you can negotiate with the police to not lock everything down to ensure you can still provide care. And even the best media training won’t educate you how to handle 24/7 press coverage and news breaking on Twitter that you have to react to with assurance and confidence.
”The team is motivated and the public trust the staff and supported them”
When something like this happens, you just have to get on with it. And that’s what Judith did – with dignity, with integrity, with honesty and respect.
On the anniversary of the case, she wrote to the families and victims to tell them the hospital team were thinking of them. A simple kind act that shows what sort of person she is. That shows what sort of leader she is.
It can not have been easy. It can not have been something she ever expected to do. She pushed her own anger at the betrayal of her and her staff aside to handle the incident with respect and compassion – towards her team and the families and victims.
It takes a real leader to do that. Judith Morris, I salute you.