All of the night-shift nurses at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit staged a sickout Saturday in apparent protest of reported understaffing that they say is endangering the infants, according to a nurse and doctor.
The sickout forced the transfer to private hospitals of as many as 13 of the 37 babies in the unit Saturday night, Women's Hospital administrator Connie Diaz said. Some outside nurses were called in to assist day-shift nurses who stayed late to pitch in, she said.
"It's not too good," said attending physician Dr. Ramanathan Rangasami, noting the staff was stretched thin. Of the eight nurses who called in sick Saturday evening before their shift began at 7 p.m., he said "they do care. They waited patiently but nothing happened for months or years (about their complaints), and they decided to call it quits today."
"They are very dedicated people and if this is a planned thing, I'm sure it's reflecting their concern for the ongoing care of the babies," agreed Diaz. "But I don't think they'd stay out long enough to really hurt them."
One woman who identified herself as one of the absent nurses, but said she did not want to reveal her name for fear of losing her job, said state standards require at least one nurse to every two neonatal ICU babies. County-USC, with its huge obstetric caseload, at times has a ratio of one nurse to four babies, she said.
"We've asked that the number of babies to be kept down to a load we can endure," the woman said. "The nurses are very, very concerned about the babies' welfare."
Of the sickout, she said, "The only way the nurses felt they could get anything accomplished was in a crisis situation."
But Diaz said the state allows different nursing ratios depending on how ill the infants are, and that a 4-to-1 ratio is acceptable for less critically ill babies.
Los Angeles County "has not refused one request for manpower, resources, anything," Diaz said. "The thing is finding the nurses. Recruitment is very difficult."
Diaz said the Women's Hospital delivers about 10 babies more a day than it is designed to handle, and has a disproportionately large number of high-risk mothers and babies.
Three years ago, half the staff nurses at County-USC's Women's Hospital joined nurses at county hospitals in a two-day sickout to protest pay and working conditions.