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Does a hospital’s right to hire smokers trump a patient’s right to breathe clean air?

I was recently in the hospital to get a head start on trying to control the leaky cellulitis/lymphedema/edema causing havoc and pain on my left leg and life.  For an entire day all my experiences in the hospital were incredibly good… until…

The new aide came closer to take vitals until she was close enough to smell cigarette smoke on her.  “Smoker”?  I asked – she said, “Yes” and continued to wrap the blood pressure cuff around my left arm and placed the thermometer into my mouth.

For whatever reason when she finished with the blood pressure, she held on to the handle of the thermometer and I smelled the smoke on her fingers held next to my nose.  My mouth was tight around the thermometer and now could not breathe without smelling her smoke and I pulled away and said, “Your fingers reek of cigarette smoke.”

She agreed and I suggested she wash her hands.  She said she did but the smoke smell did not come off.  I was trapped – a hospital patient forced to inhale cigarette smoke from a hospital worker.  She said she would get someone else to do my vitals.

Funny thing.  I was in that hospital because of a forty-year smoking habit and developed emphysema (COPD) due – probably – to smoking.

I stopped smoking in 1997 – a tough time that took me over two years to get over the gut wrenching addiction urge to smoke again…and here I was trapped in the hospital, forced to inhale smoke from a hospital employee reeking of cigarette smoke.  The irony of all their outside hospital signs proving they were a “Smoke-free” hospital and grounds was laughable.

I complained.  The hospital person I complained to told me they would get someone else to do my vitals…that I did not have to have a smoker helping me.  I asked about the other seniors – any patient – who would probably not complain of being forced to inhale the toxins of cigarette smoke from a hospital employee for fear of retaliation…no one seemed concerned about them.  Apparently, the issue is only an issue with me, an ex-smoker, as far as the hospital is concerned.

A few hours later, the RN came in with the vials of antibiotics and other meds that went directly into my veins.  He dropped one vial, hesitated, picked it up, hooked it into the devise going directly into my vein, and plunged the contents inside.  Neither of us said a word.  I remember thinking, isn’t this hospital floor dirty?  And hoped the contents of the vial stayed uncontaminated.

As an almost thirty year hairdresser, if I dropped a comb on the floor it was cleaned and re-sterilized before touching a patron.  Apparently, hospitals are different.

A while later it was time to hook up the oxygen tube to my bipap.  I pulled to get it for her but the end was stuck between the hospital bed wheel and the metal bedframe I’d just lowered.  I left to visit the bathroom and when I came back, the hospital employee had ‘fixed’ it.

I looked and she had placed the deformed tube end on my machine but had not pushed it on to secure it.  I did it and went to bed…wondering why an employee was allowed to reek of cigarette smoke and work around patients….wondered why an RN didn’t throw the vial away and get a new one for the patient when it dropped to the dirty floor…wondered why the tube end of the oxygen tube wasn’t replaced by a clean, sterile one when it had been lodged against the dirty hospital bed wheel.

To be clear…I do not care if the hospital person smokes.  I care when her/his right to smoke interferes with my right to breathe clean air – especially in a hospital.

I was discharged and came home the next day.

Am I overreacting and expecting too much from a hospital?

Thanks for reading… Sharon O’Hara

10 thoughts on “Does a hospital’s right to hire smokers trump a patient’s right to breathe clean air?

  1. Mom, this just upsets me. Good Lord!! What planet do these 2 hospital workers live on? Easy fixes both – the smoker needs to be wearing gloves and other other needed to re-sterilize the vials. Or maybe they aren’t clean to begin with?

  2. These folks were the outstanding exceptions to an incredible hospital stay and of the highest degree of professionalism from the RN’s and all staff I encountered while there.

  3. I am still a smoker. I don’t like smoking but due to circumstances have been unable to commit to quiting yet. However, I agree with Sharon that she should not have been “forced” to smell the odor of tar and nicotine on the offending nurse’s hand. Also, with regard to the other infractions she should not have had to suffer mental anguish and possible infection from dirty equipment and contaminated vials.
    I have also have suffered a couple incidences in hospitals similar to these. Actually worse than these infractions. While I’m sure the staff would not want these things to happen they obviously were not willing to take responsibility or endure the possible consequences from their employer for these infractions.
    The only thing patients can do is fight for their rights by refusing to be treated by staff that are irresponsible. You must become a self-advocate. Unfortunately, not all patients are aware enough to either notice the infractions or do anything about them. I don’t know the answer to that problem. It comes down to giving up your rights as a patient one way or another unless you have the ability to deal with it at the time. But if you can, simply refuse service from staff that are not being responsible, competent adults. Find out beforehand what you can do about it at any given time.
    Also, hospitals should all have patient advocates that have enough independence from the hospital hiarchy to actually be a benefit.

  4. Sharon – if you were admitted to the hospital from your doctor’s office, you can have your doctor write out a protocol. In this protocol are the doctor’s orders – meds, diet, exercise activity, etc. On this protocol you can have the doctor state that no smokers may work with you. It’s much easier, both on the patients and staff, if the rules are clearly stated up front. With a protocol, most of the bugs are worked out before you ever get there. I can’t help you with the klutzy nurse -he should have “wasted” the meds and used a new container. Protocols are also handy for emergency room visits. My daughter had migraines for years – her doctor wrote out a schedule of what was to be done in ER for them. It clarified for the nurses and doctors how best to help my daughter through these horrible times. I hope this helps. Tracy Patterson Hope

    1. Thanks Tracy – I didn’t know about protocols and yes, I was admitted from my doctor’s office. I’m so sorry your daughter had migraine headaches – a dear friend suffered from them and I saw first hand the devastation they caused in her life and family life…some fifty years ago. Thank you for the protocol tip – you’re right – we should know what is expected or not expected.

  5. Wow-I cant believe about the nurse. Im going to send this to my supervisor. They clearly need to refresh the staff members mind of santitary protocols. They should have disposed of the antibiotic and got a new one. Im sorry those few people ruined your stay at the hospital. Those mistakes put a bad name for Harrison in the community!

  6. No one knows exactly what causes COPD. Smoking is the most culpable thing, followed by working environments before strict hazmat guidelines. Genetics plays a role. I have it and I still smoke. Drives my doctor and LPN nuts but they tell the truth and that is that the damage is done and that stopping smoking doesn’t gain very much of anything.

    Having said that, smoking (and perfume wearing) are two things I know that the person doing them literally has no idea that the aroma is so pervasive. It is wonderful that you informed the offending smoker but why did you not tell that person that he/she had to fix the problem before you would continue to participate? Medical care (other than life-saving) is a mutual agreement process. People may look at the medical pro as a god but the medical pro knows that consent can be withdrawn at any time.

    Even though I am a smoker, my own LPN at the breathing clinic cannot tell any longer. She has to ask if I am still smoking. I also have a friend who has an allergic reaction at the smell of smoke and yet I can eat dinner at her house without ill effect on her.

    What this tells me is that there must be something unique that I am doing to prevent the smoke from adhering to my clothing and/or hands. Darned if I know what it is, though.

    Stand up for yourself and tell people why you need special attention. Most smokers I know are in an older age group and are extremely concerned that they not offend anyone with their habit. What they do not like is any hint of a holier-than-thou attitude or behavior from non-smokers or former smokers.

  7. at least the smoker went and made sure u didn’t have to work with her anymore and the nurses in charge made sure no other smokers cared for you that shows that they do care and i’m sure the one helping u didn’t mean to offend you and probably felt bad as for the nurse with the vial i agree u should have said something and same with the oxygen hospital floors are very dirty and i hope u are fine, i am a smoker myself and i do my best to prevent the smell hitting people including walking away from people even other smokers to smoke just out of respect not to have the second hand smoke blow into their faces but occasionaly someone can smell it and i appologize did the smoker atleast apologize to you cause it seemed that she was not meaning to offened u esspecially with everything she did with the other nurses to make sure u had non-smoker care

    1. I have understanding of the smoker and she immediately said she would get someone else and did so. The episode was upsetting to my roommate fighting to get well in the adjoining bed and she was captive to inhale the smoke toxins from the aide’s clothing and hands when she took her vitals.
      What about those patients just as sickened as myself but too sick to protest – why don’t they matter? I understand smokers are considerate as possible but I contend that patients in a hospital setting have the expectation that they will get well in the hospital – not sickened by the hospital caregivers old smoke.
      The hospital is surrounded by non-smoking signs – patients have the expectation they will not be subjected by smoker’s smoke. I certainly did.
      I want to know what – exactly -is the smoking policy regarding smoking caregivers and patients. If patients right to breathe clean air in the hospital is not a given, the patient should be advised the hospital hires smokers to work with patients and to be aware.

      I’d like to know if the hospital has a standard policy of using anything dropped on the floor, on the patient. Years ago, my salon would have been shut down had any employee or myself dropped then picked up a comb from the floor and used it on a client without first cleaning and re-sanitizing it.

      Should the rights of a smoker to smoke stop at a hospital door? I don’t know the answer. I’m a patient. I want the right to breathe smoke free air in the hospital and want to know the hospital smoking policy for their employees in contact with the patient. Do I ask too much? You tell me.

  8. COME on now. PREVious smokers are the worst complainers about smoke odors. I wonder how your clothes smelled when you smoked! (And I should know, I am a previous smoker myself, right at one year 2 months of quitting) You know you are just breathing in a smell, and NOT ‘smoke’ right? Although when people are sick in hospital, I do think they have a right to ‘not smell stinky things’ !! haha whether perfume or smokey smell.

    In England, they have nurses and doctors in training who are muslim and who don’t want to ‘display their arms’ when they scrub, so they will be allowed to wear long sleeves, which spreads MRSA to ‘protect their modesty’ while patients die.

    I’ll take smokey over that any day.

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