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Nurses React to Michelle Heughins Indictment

The involuntary manslaughter indictment of nurse Michelle Heughins for the death of John Neville, a man detained in a North Carolina jail, has predictably led to a range of strong emotions among nurse

The involuntary manslaughter indictment of nurse Michelle Heughins for the death of John Neville, a man detained in a North Carolina jail, has predictably led to a range of intense emotions among nurses and other healthcare providers. As we shared in a previous newsletter, Heughins attempted to revive Neville with CPR after five corrections officers had restrained him on his stomach for 12 minutes, resulting in his not breathing. Heughins was not in the holding cell during the interaction between the guards and Neville and was only let in after she noted he wasn’t moving or breathing, yet only Heughins—and none of the five guards—was indicted for his death.

Many nurses weighed in during a one-hour chat with nurse Liz, an NP whose YouTube channel has 124,000 subscribers. Nurse Liz discussed the case in a recent video chat about the many errors in prison healthcare, both in this case and more broadly. One commenter who works as a nurse in a prison explained how complex the dynamics of providing healthcare in a correctional setting are. “Security trumps EVERYTHING,” the commenter, who went by MS, wrote. “The Correctional Officers are not medically trained to decipher behaviors exhibited by acute medical distress versus a safety/security risk. They are looking at it from purely a security lens. Medical has very little control over security protocols.”

But that’s also why so many others were confused about why Heughins was indicted when none of the guards were. “In this case, she did not restrain this guy. The COs did,” commenter Susan Bailey replied. “I really don’t understand how this happened. I think the grand jury was misinformed about the facts of the case were.” Others said this case means it’s time for nurses to speak up and advocate against this kind of status quo in the prison system: “To say that jailers trump everything including your medical expertise, then it’s time to protest and leave,” commenter Gloria Council wrote. “Throughout my nursing career, I’ve had to go against my superiors who had no medical experience. My stance made it retaliatory and hostile by superiors, but I can sleep at night knowing that I put the people under my care first rather than my job.” Others with experience in prison nursing agreed with MS that security trumps everything—which keeps them safe—while others said it should never result in death. 

But all the commenters expressed frustration and dismay that only Heughins was being held accountable for Neville’s death. “Nurses are becoming the scapegoats for all healthcare troubles,” wrote commenter Vv Cc. “It is not worth it all the years in school, and this kind of work that few chose to do, now anything that happens will be the nurses’ fault. Before we know, half of the nurse population will have lost their licenses and/or be in jail.”

On other platforms, nurses called for collective action to stop this kind of disproportionate response against nurses. “Nurses are tired of bailing out the healthcare Titanic with a thimble,” wrote Diana Campion, an NP, on Twitter. “What happens next in Nursing is up to us. We need to band together and get our seats at the table or create our own tables.” Doug Davis, BSN, RN, suggested he’s not seeing enough outrage about this case: “How is it that yet another unarmed and restrained black man in America dies due to the actions of law enforcement, and no one is indicted by the grand jury EXCEPT THE NURSE! Why is no one talking about this?” 

Others wondered if the career they chose was worth it, given the risks they’re seeing from this case and that of other nurses on trial. “Just me over here in my second semester of nursing school watching the Vaught, Gaines, and Heughins trials go down, wondering whether I REALLY want to run straight into the burning building,” wrote Christy Wilkens on Twitter. A tweeter who goes by “Friendly Neighborhood Healthcare Provider” shared a similar sentiment: “Nurses are under attack right now, and it’s got me panicking. Why would I want to complete my schooling when the system will throw me under the bus for their mistakes and send ME to jail?” 

Not as many weighed in on Instagram, but TikTok was on fire, with nurses sharing their thoughts on the case and their horrifying stories. @LeahMaybelle, a Canadian nurse, shared her story about cops assaulting her patient. @TravelingNurse echoed what others said about it being “open season on nurses” before delving into an NSFW rant/explanation about the Heughins case and others. And @xuebru’s video about Heughins was published as part of a new playlist on nursing lawsuits.

The question is what nurses can and should do about cases like these. Is it time for nurses to band together and push for legislation to protect nurses better? Or is the Heughins indictment appropriate, and it’s simply that the officers should also have been indicted? Should nurse unions be leading the charge to ensure nurses aren’t held liable when it’s inappropriate, or do new organizations need to be formed to advocate to protect nurses and other healthcare workers? What do you think?

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