Attacked NB nurse’s book alleges ‘conspiracy of silence’ over workplace violence
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Attacked NB nurse’s book alleges ‘conspiracy of silence’ over workplace violence

A former Moncton hospital nurse who was brutally attacked at work five years ago has written a book about her journey to recovery and her quest for social justice, one she hopes will help other victims of workplace violence.

Natasha Poirier, a nurse manager at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Center, was cornered in her office on March 11, 2019 and attacked by a patient’s husband, who wanted his wife to be moved to a quieter room.

Bruce (Randy) Van Horlick dragged Poirier from a chair by her hair, punched her in the temple, threw her against a wall, twisted her arm and several fingers backward, and then attacked another nurse, Teresa Thibeault, who tried to intervene.

The attack lasted 11 minutes. Poirier says her life “changed forever.”

She suffered a brain injury and suffers from chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.

“I have 24 symptoms that I have to deal with every day,” she said. They are so debilitating that WorkSafeNB, Health Canada, Blue Cross and Canada Pension Plan have ruled she cannot return to work at Vitalité Health Network.

SEE | “Code of Silence, That’s What I Would Call It”:

Attacked NB nurse’s book alleges ‘conspiracy of silence’ over workplace violence

Former Moncton nurse who was assaulted at work shares her experience

Natasha Poirier was brutally attacked while on shift at a Moncton hospital five years ago, and she shared her experience in hopes of helping other victims of workplace violence.

In 2020, Van Horlick, 74, was found guilty of two criminal charges of assault and sentenced to six months in prison.

Poirier also sued Van Horlick and was ordered to pay her $1.3 million in 2022, though she said she has not received any money to date.

“Code of Silence”

According to Poirier’s book, Uncertain: Testimony of Justicewritten with the help of a ghostwriting firm, workplace violence against nurses and other healthcare workers is a “global epidemic” that “demands attention.”

“We must collectively declare that this is an occupational hazard,” she wrote. “It is time to say, ‘Enough!!!’”

Poirier said she has experienced two workplace assaults during her 25-year career, including being kicked in the stomach by a patient when she was eight months pregnant.

She also witnessed her colleagues being pushed, spat on, threatened, and having urine and feces thrown at them.

But few are speaking out, Poirier said.

“There is an unspoken rule that I would call the ‘code of silence,’ and fear of retaliation or losing one’s job, fear of being blamed, of being judged, fear of being seen as weak, and feelings of guilt and shame all of these things, I think, keep healthcare workers quiet.”

“It’s a culture that’s been around for years. But I hope with the new generation that’s coming up, they’ll be more willing to use their voices and express their dissatisfaction and not accept the status quo.”

If my voice can help or shed light on the silence surrounding violence, then perhaps that will be my future… contribution.– Natasha Poirier, nurse, assault survivor and author

Poirier hopes that sharing her experiences and how she “weathered the storm of trauma” will help raise awareness of the situation and the need for “stronger security, especially in hospital settings.”

He also hopes it will help “victims” on their path to becoming “survivors” realize that “it is possible to have a better quality of life over time.”

“If my voice can help or shed light on the silence surrounding violence, then perhaps that will be my future… contribution.”

National Union Praises Book

Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said the book — which was released in early May, during national nursing week — is already having an impact and she plans to promote it.

“This is a personal story that I’m sure was very difficult to write, but it sends a message to all of us, including unions, governments, employers, that we need to better protect nurses and healthcare workers.”

Silas said workplace violence in the industry is “all too common.”

She said a survey of more than 5,000 nurses nationwide conducted in January found that nine in 10 had experienced some form of violence in the past year, including physical attacks, emotional abuse and harassment.

Portrait of a woman with shoulder-length dark hair wearing a fuchsia blouse.
Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, says nurses who have been harmed by workplace violence often “disappear and are forgotten. But thanks to (Poirier’s) book, we won’t forget.” (Radio-Canada)

That number is growing every year, Silas said, in part because patients and their families are becoming increasingly frustrated.

“They’re in the hallways. They’re waiting too long in the ER, they’re waiting too long to get treatment. They ring the bell, nobody comes. There aren’t enough nurses, there aren’t enough healthcare workers to meet the needs.

“So there is definitely a level of frustration, but it is not a reason to physically or verbally abuse staff.”

Silas also added that she thinks nurses are starting to feel more comfortable reporting incidents.

“When I was a nurse, you were embarrassed to report it. You know, ‘What did you do wrong?’

“And now we’re trying to gradually change the culture among nurses and healthcare workers that you deserve a safe work environment and you need to speak up. And that’s exactly what Natasha Poirier and her colleague did, they spoke up.”

Navigating the “Aftermath”

It wasn’t easy, Poirier said. She felt abandoned by her employer after Van Horlick’s attack.

“When I decided to call the RCMP due to the assault, I was not commended for making that call, nor was I encouraged to continue on my journey to seek justice for myself.”

Despite the support of her family, coworkers and community, Poirier says she still felt alone.

“I really think workplace assaults are misunderstood … because not enough people talk about the impacts” — not just on the victims but on the people around them, Poirier said.

A black and white Shih Tzu resting, wearing a service dog harness.
Poirier says her guide dog, named Harvey, gives her confidence when she feels disoriented or lost. (Radio-Canada)

The attack had a significant impact on her family, she said, referring to the pain of having to accept that their loved one would never be the same, as well as on her co-workers who experienced “vicarious trauma.”

She said that during the year-and-a-half of the criminal trial she felt as if she was “being chewed up and spat out alive.”

Then there was the civil trial, which was also exhausting.

Poirier said she tried to continue working part-time as a nurse for Veterans Affairs, but even reducing her hours proved too much and she had to stop working in November 2022.

“As the day goes on and my brain gets tired, I become more emotional, my brain slows down, I start fumbling for words, I become more forgetful, and all the symptoms… come back,” she said.

“But I also have good days and I value those days and try to be as productive as I can.”

She said part of her healing process and regaining a “sense of wholeness” was telling her story on her own terms and listening to other survivors, including women in abusive relationships.

“This book is a message of hope—a testament to the strength we all have to overcome adversity,” she wrote.

“I hope to provide comfort, inspiration, and a call to action for change.”