At the end of a rally outside the Massachusetts State House, a crowd of more than 500 nurses bowed their heads in a moment of silence to mark the loss of Rosemary O’Brien, RN, a beloved and respected leader of the Massachusetts Nurses Association/National Nurses United, a passionate advocate for the developmentally disabled, and a true pioneer in the MNA/NNU’s groundbreaking efforts to address the issue of workplace violence against nurses and other health care professionals.
O’Brien died on May 20, the night before the rally held in front of the building whose halls she walked both as a patient and nurse advocate; and for many years as a volunteer tour guide, detailing its great history with her engaging smile. A one-woman political action committee, O’Brien was a believer in the need for nurses to speak truth to power and to use government as a tool to improve the practice of nurses and the care patients receive.
“We have lost a dear friend, a great patient advocate, someone who has left a mark on her profession and the professional association she both loved and served for nearly 40 years,” said Donna Kelly-Williams, RN, President of MNA/NNU.
A resident of South Harwich and 1960 graduate of the Laboure School of Nursing, O’Brien was a nurses’ nurse who spent years working for the Department of Developmental Disabilities as a staff nurse in residential and community settings, where she was also a union leader serving on the executive board for MNA’s Unit 7 Health Care professionals, and later as a member of the MNA/NNU Board of Directors. She was also active on the regional level, serving as an officer for Regional Council 3, which serves members from Cape Cod, the Islands and Southeastern Mass.
Her political advocacy was sparked when the state began implementing its controversial Medication Administration Program (MAP) where a loop hole in the law was used to allow unlicensed personnel with a few weeks training to administer all types of medications to clients in group homes for the developmentally disabled.
O’Brien was an outspoken critic of the program, and led an effort to file legislation to try and stop the practice, testifying at the state house on numerous occasions, and by allowing herself to be quoted in a number of news articles about the dangers of these practices.
“Rosemary was a tireless advocate for the developmentally disabled in Southeastern Mass. and across the state,” said Mike D’Intinosanto, RN, chair of MNA Unit 7. “Even after her retirement after over 30 years of state service, she continued to speak out passionately about the injustice of allowing unlicensed personnel to dispense meds to our most vulnerable disabled citizens. Her love of caring for the disabled community will be missed.”
She was also a passionate advocate for safe patient limits for nurses, and for legislation and our ballot initiative to improve the safety and quality of patient care, having gathered hundreds of signatures to put the question on the ballot.
A Champion for Protecting the Health and Safety of Nurses
While always an advocate for her patients, O’Brien was also a champion for efforts to protect the health and Safety of nurses themselves, who are injured more than construction workers and assaulted on the job more than police officers and prison guards.
In fact, in 2000, O’Brien was a founding member of the MNA/NNUs Workplace Violence Prevention Task Force, a body that was formed after a colleague of O’Brien’s was viciously beaten by a patient, and when she took the patient to court, the judge threw out the case stating “It’s part of your job.”
O’Brien, along with other members of the task force then embarked on a campaign to change that perception, making it clear to both law enforcement officials and health care providers that violence against nurses was indeed “not part of our job.”
O’Brien and her colleagues first embarked on a statewide tour of court houses, DA offices and police stations to educate the courts and law enforcement about the issue and the need to take a stronger stand in protecting nurses from assaults.
This early work culminated in 2007, when O’Brien convinced Norfolk County District Attorney William Keating to convene a task force to study the issue of workplace violence against nurses, which finally resulted in a groundbreaking report entitled “Protecting Our Caregivers from Workplace Violence.” The report provided data, much of it gathered by the MNA Task force, on the prevalence of violence against nurses and other health care workers, and what steps needed to be taken to prevent it.
The report generated significant media attention and DA Keating and members of the task force used the report to develop legislation to address the issue. One of the pieces of legislation derived from this effort and filed by MNA/NNU increased the penalties for those who assault nurses, which was passed in 2010. A second bill, a law to require all health care providers to put in place plans to prevent workplace violence, is currently being considered by the legislature.
Under her leadership, the Task force has also assisted thousands of nurse and MNA members across the Commonwealth by creating contract language on workplace violence prevention that has been included in a number of MNA/NNU contracts.
O’Brien was recognized for her work on workplace violence prevention in 2007 when she was the recipient of the Kathryn McGinn-Cutler Advocate for Health and Safety Award, which recognizes an MNA member who does outstanding work to protect nurses in the workplace.
While O’Brien and her colleagues have made MNA/NNU a leading national voice on the issue of workplace violence, our members, led by O’Brien, have not stopped there, as they have taken our message for workplace safety international.
In 2008, O’Brien, along with MNA Task Force Members Terri Arthur and Susan Vickory, received the “Best Poster Presentation Award” for its submission entitled “Legal Interventions for Addressing Workplace Violence in the Health Sector” at the International Workplace Violence Conference in Holland.
“Every nurse in Massachusetts owes a debt of gratitude to Rosemary O’Brien, as few members have worked harder and done more to make our profession safer for both patients and nurses, and none have done it with more grace and dignity,” said Julie Pinkham, RN, MNA/NNU executive director. “She exemplifies what it means to be a true nurse advocate.”