Jennette Pearson suffered a concussion after being assaulted by a patient last October at the Utah State Hospital, where she works as a registered nurse.

She is still recovering months after the assault and only returned to working 12-hour shifts in January, her husband, Adam Ozuna, told the Deseret News in an interview last week.

“Jenny got attacked, and we spent seven hours that night in the ER,” he said. “And literally she was off for two and a half months. This last week was the first week she worked three full shifts.”

Ozuna, who is also a health care worker, said nurses and physicians are at especially high risk for assault because they work in close proximity with patients — some of whom have mental illnesses and may be more prone to lashing out.

This week, the Utah lawmakers took a major step toward approving a bill that seeks to expand protections for health care workers like Pearson. The House passed HB32, which would enhance penalties for assaults against nurses and doctors. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

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“We’re hopeful that this makes a difference and is a deterrent for people to stop hitting health care providers,” Ozuna said. “They’re in a really vulnerable state. When you’re providing care to somebody you’re taking a blood pressure (reading) or putting a needle in or giving them meds, you are inches away from people. Inches.”

Pearson spoke with KSL-TV in November, after she filed a lawsuit against the state. She said she was attacked — punched in the face by a patient while administering medications — while working an extra shift to help out amid staffing shortages.

“I still have headaches,” she said at the time. “I get tired. I think there’s probably some lingering depression.”

She said she loves her job but wishes that there were more protections in place to protect nurses.

“On our level, on the employee level, we want to be able to go home, to come back to work the next day,” she said.

Pearson has been going through concussion protocols since the attack and has suffered minor memory issues and struggled with balance. She has also struggled psychologically in the time since, but was willing to speak out in hopes of making a change that would protect others in her profession.

“She’s a really pretty lady, and it was hard (speaking publicly),” Ozuna said. “Because she’s like, ‘I don’t want to feel like this victim.’”

Ozuna said he thinks the bill would help, but acknowledged that issues like staffing levels and security will need to be addressed in order to truly cut down on violent attacks. He encouraged lawmakers to visit hospitals around the state in order to get a better idea of where additional resources could have the most impact.

Health care workers and nurses have received a lot of attention during the COVID-19 pandemic and recent omicron surge, but Ozuna said issues of violence against health care professionals are nothing new.

“It has to be looked at because it’s not going away,” he said. “COVID has shined a light on it. It exists, and it’s not going to go away. In the hospital, they’re doing what they can now because they have a little more resources, but it’s a tough situation.”

Lockdowns and other preventative measures have caused hospital patients to go a little “stir crazy,” Ozuna said, just like the rest of us. He hopes lawmakers will continue to prioritize health care worker safety, even after the pandemic wanes.

For now, Pearson is just doing what she can to get back to full strength on the job.

“She’s a good nurse,” Ozuna said. “It was just hard. I see the emotional side of what a concussion can do, and the fear of like, ‘Oh, what am I putting myself into?’ But she knows that’s where she wants to be right now.”

Jennette Pearson, who was assaulted while working as an RN at the Utah State Hospital, shows photos of her after the assault, outside of her home in Orem on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. Pearson is still recovering months later. HB32 would create enhanced penalties for assaults against health care workers. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Enhanced penalties for assaulting health care workers

Assailants charged with assaulting health care workers could face harsher penalties under a bill approved by the Utah House on Tuesday.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to recognize these heroes,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, adding that the bill would provide “moral and legal support” to a workforce besieged by the COVID-19 pandemic and a rising number of threats against nurses and physicians.

The Utah House on Tuesday passed HB32 on a 56-16 vote. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

The bill’s language was amended slightly from the original version of the bill, but would have a similar effect. It would create a class A misdemeanor for “assault or threat of violence against a health facility employee” and would increase the penalty to a third-degree felony if the attack is intentional and “causes substantial bodily injury.”

State code already applies those penalties to cover emergency room workers, but the bill would extend the same protections to all health workers.

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“Health care is inherently dangerous to its front-line workers, due to exposure to illness and disease that they work with every day. The added risks of violence and belligerence make these jobs even more dangerous,” Spendlove said. “Unlike law enforcement, which provides additional armor and training and weapons, these health care workers really don’t have any kind of protections.”

He quoted a health care worker who said, “Health care workers are at their best when they can approach provision of care in an open, unguarded manner, focused on the patient’s needs. However, the only armor we have is our scrubs.”

Some lawmakers worried about adding a special protection for certain workers, saying the existing law should be enough to punish perpetrators.

“I just have some concerns,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo. “I think we define different degrees of assaults for what they are and then the associated penalties with them. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a high school referee, or a nurse, or a law enforcement officer, or anybody else, that should be the penalty.”

Law enforcement officials and military members are already covered with enhanced protections under Utah code, as are public school employees.

Rep. Nelson Abbott, R-Orem, worried that the bill would unintentionally harm patients with severe mental illnesses by preventing them from receiving the care they need.

“I’m concerned that a bill like this might actually complicate them receiving treatment because ... it’s more likely that the charges will result in them being transferred to jail,” he said.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said patients with a mental illness would be able to take a different plea, and he noted protections are already in place to keep such patients out of prison.

Stoddard voted for the bill, calling it “unfair” that enhanced protection depends on “where you’re at in the hospital,” as current code only protects those “engaged in lifesaving care.”

“I know that many of you hear from health care workers and family and friends who live in your district,” said Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City. “You know that each and every one of them is exhausted right now, and on top of everything they’re frightened, and their security and health and well-being is sincerely at risk. ... I think the least we can do is offer this modest additional protection.”

Each health care worker who misses time due to an assault further diminishes an already strained workforce, said Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, which is why he voted in favor of the bill.

He said clinics in Roy — where he serves as police chief — have seen “an influx of frustrated patients,” who are being disorderly and threatening the staff members.