In 2001, when Cheryl Connors was just three years into her career as a nurse, an 18-month-old girl named Josie King died as a result of medical errors on Connors' unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Hospital administrators instructed nurses and physicians, who were traumatized by the little girl's death, not to discuss the case. They were left with no support and no way to work through their feelings. “Over the next year, I watched a lot of great nurses leave our unit and even leave the profession altogether,” Connors said. “The culture on our unit was swirling in the toilet.”
In the years that followed, she became deeply involved in efforts to make care safer at the hospital, rising to her current post as patient-safety specialist at the hospital's Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality. But her experiences following Josie's death stuck with her.
In 2010, she teamed up with Dr. Albert Wu, a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins, to find a way to offer hospital staff needed emotional support following adverse events. In 2000, Wu wrote about the “second victim” phenomenon—a term that refers to the effects that medical errors have on caregivers and staff—in a widely read article in the journal BMJ.
After a medical error, employees may suffer from anxiety, shame and depression. The symptoms, if left unchecked, can progress to post-traumatic stress syndrome, Wu said. “It's evident that some people, months and years later, are still trying to avoid trigger situations or certain kinds of patients.”
Wu argues that hospitals need to provide support for stressed employees, not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because without such help, they are more likely to make mistakes on the job or leave their positions. There have even been cases of distraught caregivers who took their own lives after a medical error, he said.