‘A very poor choice of words’: State senator speaks out after nursing comments go viral

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- 2,000 packs of cards, 10,000 emails and 35,000 phone calls. It's been a busy week for state Sen. Maureen Walsh and her Senate staffers.

Walsh, a Republican from Walla Walla, sparked outrage nationwide when she suggested that nurses in smaller hospitals “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.”

She made the comments on the Senate floor while debating a bill, SHB 1155, that would provide nurses with uninterrupted meal and rest periods.

“By putting these types of mandates on a critical access hospital that literally serves a handful of individuals, I would submit to you those nurses probably do get breaks. They probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day,” she said.

Her comments quickly spread on social media, and even her apology that followed  -- in which she said she was tired and misspoke -- irked some.

In a phone interview with Q13's Brandi Kruse Friday morning, Walsh said she knew immediately after she spoke that she had made a mistake.

"I wish I had withdrawn it in the speech," she said. "My mother was a nurse. I was in the hospital last year, and the nurses are frankly the only reason that hospital stay was bearable. But I did use a very poor choice of words."

She said she was trying to highlight the difference between the staffing needs of rural, critical-access hospitals with 25 or fewer beds and the staffing needs of larger, more urban hospitals. Smaller hospitals in Walsh's district are already "operating in the red," and staffing mandates would only hurt them more, she said.

"That’s really the truth of it. I was tired, I was also upset. I was very concerned about the fact that my critical access hospitals, the possibility of them not being exempt … also just my philosophical objection to telling hospitals how they have to staff their nurses, I find that kind of objectionable." she said. "Again, we’re talking about a hospital with sick and dying patients. Micromanaging that from a citizen legislative level seems a little bit inappropriate to me."

The legislation ultimately passed both chambers and awaits the governor's signature. But a provision that would limit nursing shifts to an eight hours a day was stripped from the bill, and the critical access hospitals that Walsh was trying to defend will have extra time -- roughly two years -- to comply with the new requirements.

As for the playing cards she received, they're going to nursing homes, the USO, juvenile rehabilitation centers across the state, and to VA hospitals, Walsh said.

"People all over the country have been asking for them," she said. "We're trying to make good use of them."

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