Nurses feared for their lives, as town of Bourke grapples with rising crime by Aboriginal youths

It is getting towards a refusal by nurses to go there.  There have been examples of that elsewhere.  But the young thugs don't care.  In such situations an enhanced police presence is often the only thing that keeps medical services available

The nurses told the ABC's The World Today program that they fear for the safety of their colleagues and patients due to a lack of security and staff.

All of the nurses who spoke to the ABC shared their stories on the condition of anonymity.

Steve, not his real name, said he feared a nurse could lose their life if security was not improved. "I can get stabbed any time of the day, that can happen at any time," he said.

In one of the most recent incidents, several student nurses were allegedly threatened and robbed by young offenders armed with a knife.

The escalating threat of violent crime has had an effect on staff at Bourke's hospital and their ability to care for patients, according to the nurses, and they fear some patients could even die due to a chronic lack of hospital staff.

Helen, another nurse, said staffing and security had to be improved before it was too late. "Are they going to wait for someone to die before they do something?" she said.

Mark Spittal, the chief executive of the Western NSW Local Health District, which has responsibility for the hospital in Bourke, said the safety of staff was of the highest priority. "We have zero tolerance for threatening or criminal behaviour that affects our workforce," said Mr Spittal.

But the town, 800 kilometres west of Sydney, is still struggling to end the threat of crime.

On Sunday night, a visiting magistrate experienced crime first-hand. Police say several young offenders allegedly broke into a Bourke motel room where the 66-year-old woman was sleeping and tried to steal her handbag, after wrestling her to the ground.

Three juveniles, including a 10-year-old, were arrested.

Abuse 'every single day', says nurse

The nurses who spoke to the ABC shared details of several times they had felt unsafe during their time in the community.

Nancy worked as a nurse at Bourke hospital for more than two years, before leaving in 2020. "They just abuse us, every single day," she said.  "I've had colleagues who were physically harmed by the patients, one of them was punched in the face."

She said there were not enough staff at the hospital to deal with patients with mental health and drug and alcohol issues, which she said were common.

"A mental health patient, he was brought in by the police, they said they already frisk searched him for any dangerous items," she said.

But quickly a violent and dangerous scene broke out in front of her. "Right in front of me, right in front of the hospital, he just took out a blade and started slashing himself," she said.

"He went out of the hospital and grabbed a rubbish bin and he smashed it, he smashed it on the front door and the glass front door, it was broken."

Incidents such as this have led the University of Sydney to suspend its student nurse placements in Bourke.

The situation is exacerbated by the lack of adequate security staffing, according to Steve. "It's pretty scary because we don't have like a proper security guard on duty at night," he said.

He said he had been told by violent patients that they would stab him if they saw him outside the hospital.

While he worked in the town, he feared going to authorities and having to testify in court, because of potential reprisals.

"Bourke is just a small town and if I appear in court or something like that, I don't know what will happen, I'm just also scared of my life if I do that," he said.

Another nurse, Helen, said general staff at the hospital had tried to help with the security situation, but with only one security guard who was not always on shift, protecting nurses was impossible.

"The gardeners, the cleaners, the kitchen staff [tried to help but], they don’t hold a licence as security," she said.

She left Bourke in 2020, after three years at the hospital.

Mr Spittal from the Western NSW Local Health District told the ABC that after a recent security audit of the hospital, changes have been made since the incidents described by the nurses.

"A number of measures have been established or expanded, including a 24/7 presence of security personnel and improvements to infrastructure, including lighting," he said.

"Further improvements and measures will be put in place in the coming days."

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