The attacker struck in the foyer of Melbourne’s Western Hospital on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning.
I’d just arrived and had my mobile phone out to ring my registrar to ask whether I had time to nick up to the wards and see my patients, or whether I needed to go straight to the outpatient clinic.
At first I thought I’d been pushed in the back. Then I slipped on my own blood and fell to the floor. I was being stabbed, over and over again.
I remember turning my head so a blow coming at my eye instead landed on my skull. Being a neurosurgeon, I could all too easily picture the blade piercing my brain through the eye socket.
I remember people yelling and the tug on my clothing as I was dragged along the floor through a set of double doors to safety and along the corridors to emergency, leaving a trail of blood.
I remember the look of absolute horror on my registrar’s face, as I was wheeled past him on a hospital trolley on my way to surgery.
Then things faded out until I woke to the moment of truth. It was 2am and I was alone, in a hospital bed.
All up, I was stabbed 14 times. But I was lucky.
I was fortunate that instead of being bystanders, brave people intervened to get me away from my attacker. The surgical team did an incredible job of stitching me back together, with a cardiothoracic surgeon removing part of my lung to stem bleeding and three plastic surgeons mending severed tendons and muscles in my arms and hands.
My arms and hands were in splints for six weeks. I couldn’t eat without help, or get dressed.
I couldn’t wipe my own backside – at times, I had my eight-year-old son helping me in the bathroom. If that’s not humbling, I don’t know what is.
When the splints came off, I was fortunate to have a hand therapist who worked with me over the next 12 months to enable me to regain strength and movement.
I was also lucky to be able to recover fully and return to work.
If anything, my experience has made me a better doctor – I have a deeper understanding of how it feels to be a patient, including the inconvenience and loss of control, the fear and pain.
My attacker was mentally unwell. People ask me if “the way forward” is better mental health care. While that would be welcome, the solutions I’m calling for are simpler.
First, busy public areas of hospitals should have trained security guards in them. You can’t have security guards everywhere, but I think it’s realistic to expect they can be stationed in hospital foyers and outpatient clinics – as well as emergency departments.
Second, fewer areas of hospital should be public.
All wards should be accessible only via swipe card access in the same way surgical theatres are protected today.
Third, hospitals should have secure entries for staff.
Management need to take the issue seriously – If staff are injured, they may need to take time off work for treatment. Indirectly, occupational violence contributes to stress that can lead to burn-out, psychological damage and employee turnover.
There are also issues of legal liability.
A Fairfax analysis of Victorian hospital annual reports in 2015-2016, found there were 8627 violent incidents reported – almost one an hour – with 1166 resulting injuries.