Handle with Care

by University Relations

Day and night, in hospitals throughout the nation, thousands of dedicated nurses go above and beyond the call of duty, spending countless hours doing what they love and often paying a painful price for their sacrifice. As they respectfully reposition bedridden patients and carefully transfer others to and from wheelchairs and stretchers, these caretakers frequently end up with pulled muscles, aching joints, and strained backs. According to the Department of Labor, hospitals annually report more than 35,000 injuries among nurses that cause them to miss work, making nursing one of the most injury-prone occupations. But Pauline “Tony” Hilton, MSN ’01, DrPH, helped change that reality by introducing innovative technologies to American hospitals.

A successful nurse practitioner, Hilton began transforming modern healthcare practices as an MSN student at APU, when she discovered her calling to work with veterans. “APU’s emphasis on service and clinicals caring for underserved populations gave a greater purpose to my career, and I committed to improving care for those often forgotten by society,” she said.

With a clear purpose and a passion to serve, Hilton began exploring new breakthroughs in medical technology. Joining international researchers and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leaders, she realized the potential of safe patient handling, which involves developing the best methods for moving patients. Already successful in Europe, the movement had not yet reached the United States. “I knew this was important, not only for veterans’ hospitals but for all health care.” She began championing safe patient handling, and in 2009 became the first safe patient handling and mobility coordinator at the VA’s Loma Linda Healthcare System (HCS). With a $220 million grant to all VA facilities, Hilton set about transforming the Loma Linda VA hospital’s practices and implementing state-of-the-art equipment.

One of the most effective tools consists of a hanging bar linked to a track running across the ceiling of a hospital room. Nurses attach a sling cradling the patient to the bar and, using the motorized machine, can easily reposition patients, or move them to a stretcher, wheelchair, or the bathroom. “Technology like this takes a major burden off nurses, doctors, and surgeons so they can focus on real care,” said Hilton. “At the same time, it is much safer and more comfortable for patients.” Other equipment includes powered stretchers, load-lifting devices connected to ambulances, and inflatable mattresses that gently reposition patients with the press of a button. These tools have unlocked once-impossible tasks: people confined to beds can now easily use the bathroom, take showers, and begin rehabilitation.

Now, Loma Linda HCS stands as a shining example of safe patient handling, with nurse and patient injuries cut by 40 percent. Hilton, however, is not finished. In 2014, she began promoting the cause nationally, co-managing the VA’s national safe patient handling program, partnering with other hospitals, and speaking at conferences across the country to share her findings. Last September, she became the first safe patient handling manager for the national VA office in Washington, DC, overseeing 160 hospitals and supporting all facilities. The transformation goes even beyond the VA: 11 states have adopted as law the methods that Hilton helped develop. “This is the new norm in the U.S.,” she said. “Once behind, we now lead in safe patient handling on a global scale.” One of 90,000 nurses in the VA, Hilton does her part to make a difference and ensure compassionate care for the nation’s veterans.