Francisca Benitez

What do you imagine when you picture a security guard? You might think of an intimidating person standing quietly, ready to jump into action if anyone steps out of line or breaks rules. The job is a little different at Grande Ronde Hospital, where the most important tool is compassion.

GRH brought in security guards to protect nurses and patients around two and a half years ago as part of a pilot program aimed at keeping hospital staff safe. Elaine LaRochelle, GRH facilities director, said the security guards have made a huge difference for staff and patients in the hospital.

The hospital recently expanded the program to hire another security guard, increasing the total to four.

There are many aspects of being a security guard at GRH that are unique. For one, almost everyone in the hospital is in a highly stressful situation, whether they are sick themselves or concerned about a family member they are visiting. Other people who are acting out might be intoxicated or mentally ill.

Chip VanGunten is the head of security at GRH.

“I enjoy the atmosphere and being able to help people,” he said.

He explained that while he and the other security guards do protect staff and patients from unruly people, much of the job is helping around the hospital.

“You’re brushing off someone’s car in the snow (or) giving them a ride if you have to,” VanGunten said. “We jump-start vehicles, we provide lock-out service for them, (or) air up their tires. We go get them a wheelchair if they (need one).”

He said he has even acted as a babysitter in cases where one parent is sick and the other needs to take care of things.

VanGunten said GRH security mostly uses de-escalation techniques to calm down disruptive or violent people.

Stephan Wing, who is a security guard at GRH, said just having a guard in the room can help.

“Without even having to say anything, I’ve noticed that if I come into a hostile environment or where there are people out in the lobby arguing with each other, everything will calm down,” he said.

VanGunten said it can be very stressful and often panic inducing to wait in the Emergency Room and feel like no one is helping you. When the Emergency Room is backed up and staff is working hard to catch up, VanGunten said the security guards can assist by reaching out to patients or family members.

“A lot of times just going out there and talking to them, turning on the TV for them or bringing them some coffee makes them feel like someone cares. You can really see the change in the people in the room,” VanGunten said.

The hospital is not allowed to turn a patient away for bad behavior. If someone who is seeking medical help causes a scene or scares staff and other patients, security guards can’t ask the patient to leave, unlike at a concert venue, bar or business.

“It’s not like ‘no shoes, no shirt, no service,’” LaRochelle said. “We have to see them until they are medically cleared.”

She said security handles violent or disruptive people at least two or three times per week. When there is a person causing a problem, it is rarely confined to one instance. These people are often continually disruptive until they or their family members are discharged from the hospital, which usually is a few days in duration.

Even in cases where a person is continually disruptive at the hospital, compassion is still necessary. These are often people who are going through an extremely traumatic event, like the death of a loved one. Recently, a thank-you note was turned in to the hospital about Wing. It was from a person who was moved by Wing’s kindness.

Wing explained that the person was at the hospital for several days because his loved one was sick.

“She ended up passing away, so he was stressed and causing a scene in the lobby,” Wing said. “I pulled him aside and asked him what was wrong. He told me that she died.”

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer