New London - The atmosphere at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital Thursday resembled a long-anticipated reunion for the nurses and technicians returning to their jobs for the first time in three weeks, as well as for the hospital staff who welcomed them.
"We really missed the nurses," said Sandy Dyer, who works in the hospital's scheduling department, as she headed back to her car after the end of her shift. "It was a great transition back."
Returning nurses and technicians took over from the replacement workers who had been staffing the hospital since a four-day strike that began Nov. 27, followed by a 19-day lockout imposed by the hospital over a contract dispute with the union that represents them. When no agreement was reached after a marathon negotiation session, the hospital ended the lockout Thursday, enabling nurses and technicians to return under terms of the contract that expired Nov. 16.
Carol McDonnell of Niantic, a licensed practical nurse, said staff was "positive and reassuring," and that a meeting with administration at the start of the day helped set the tone.
"It helped settle everybody down in a positive way," she said.
On her unit, she said, there were 16 patients - about half the usual number - but it was otherwise unchanged from before the strike.
At 6:45 a.m., nurses and technicians began their shift with a meeting in Baker Auditorium led by Dr. Christopher Lehrach, vice president and chief transformation officer, and Sue Greenleaf, chief learning officer. Lehrach said the main message conveyed was "welcome back, welcome home," and that he and Greenleaf tried to set a tone of reconciliation and mutual respect.
"We fully recognize that there are a wide range of emotions, from happy to relieved to resentment and anger," he said. "It's all normal."
Regardless of their individual positions on the strike, lockout and hospital-union strife, Lehrach said, nurses and technicians were assured that "we don't want a punitive environment. We want a safe environment."
Greenleaf said staff will be invited to meetings in the next few weeks to further the healing process, and that counseling and other assistance will be available. Overall, the atmosphere at the meeting was "very emotional, with lots of hugs and tears," Lehrach said.
After the end of her shift, registered nurse Liz Caruso said her first day back seemed "like a pretty normal day," other than having fewer patients than usual on her unit.
"I'm happy to be back to work," she said.
While returning to her work routine was a welcome relief, she said, the meeting in the morning didn't sit well.
"We were corralled into Baker Auditorium and given a speech," she said. "It was hard to sit there and listen to people who locked you out illegally tell you how to behave."
AFT Connecticut, the union that represents about 800 nurses and technicians at L+M, has filed an injunction over what it contends was an illegal lockout.
One welcome piece of news nurses and technicians heard Thursday was that their health insurance benefits, canceled when the lockout began, are being reinstated retroactively. Hospital spokesman Mike O'Farrell said anyone who paid out-of-pocket for medical care during the lockout will be able to receive reimbursement.
In addition to the returning regular staff, the hospital also reopened the outpatient and other entrances, and restored full operations to elective and emergency surgeries and balloon angioplasty services. During the strike and lockout, only the main hospital entrance was opened, and some surgery services were limited.
"Everything's open," O'Farrell said.
New London resident Andrea Stevenson, whose elderly mother and father have both been hospitalized at L+M since the lockout, said the return of the regular nurses and technicians is also good news for patients and their families. While the replacement workers were "very competent and courteous, I did not have the same confidence in them."
"When I showed up this morning to my mother's floor," she said in an email message, "I saw many new faces of (the regular staff) all working diligently on their patients. It was evident that the lockout was over and it was back to business as usual. My mother was actually receiving a sponge bath, and she seemed much more comfortable. I saw so much more activity by the nursing staff than I had seen in the prior four days. I felt relieved and had a greater sense of confidence in the care and attention she was receiving."
Registered nurse Corey Palmieri said she was doubly excited to return to work, since she hadn't seen many of her co-workers since September, when she left for maternity leave. She was supposed to return on Dec. 1, the second day of the lockout.
"Everyone was really happy to have us back," said Palmieri, who said the respiratory and renal unit she's worked in for the past 5½ years had a full patient census Thursday.
The reorientation meeting in the morning, she said, helped ease tensions.
"They talked about treating each other with respect, and spoke nicely to everyone," she said, as she headed to her car after the end of her shift.
Two nurses who work in Pond House, L+M's psychiatric unit, said they kept busy on their first day back caring for patients, with their co-workers all glad to be back together and able to put the past three weeks behind them.
"Everything went smoothly," said one, who declined to give her name.
The return of the nurses and technicians was also an emotional boost for the rest of the hospital staff, said Stephanie Austin, who works in the business office.
"I'm just glad they're back and we can focus on what's important - caring for the community," she said after her shift. "I'm just so glad for everybody that this is over."
While the lockout is over, contract issues remain unresolved. Federal mediator John Carpino has proposed that negotiating teams for L+M and the union delay the next meeting until February.
Matt O'Connor, spokesman for AFT Connecticut, said the union has agreed to the "cooling off period."
O'Farrell said the hospital is "taking it under advisement" but has not yet agreed to the proposal.
The two sides last met on Monday. It was the 16th session since negotiations began.
In the weeks ahead, Lehrach said, the nurses, technicians and administrators are being asked to reflect on why they the chose health care profession and recommit to the mission of serving the community, even as they work to mend the damage done over the past three weeks.
"Every one of us who works here are healers, and right now we have to focus a lot on healing ourselves," he said. "These two sides have bloodied each other over the past few weeks, and we've lost treasure and time."
Added Greenleaf: "Trust is not going to be re-established overnight. But we've gained a lot of renewed appreciation of each other."