By Genevieve Wong
Eugene Eckhardt has spent the last 15 years behind bars. But, it’s not what you think.
Eckhardt is a nurse manager in the Medical Services Bureau at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In short, this means he manages and provides health care to approximately 4,900 patient-inmates with direct authority. Eckhardt’s primary responsibility: the Men’s Central Jail.
The L.A. native admits correctional nursing is a profession very few people understand.
“The first thing that comes into the layperson’s mind is ‘You’re not going to be safe,’” confesses the 62 year-old registered nurse. “The funny thing is I always felt more safe in the Sheriff’s department than in a private hospital where you are basically dependent on a couple of rent a cops.”
Ironically, Eckhardt feels he was placed in more dangerous situations during his first three years as a nurse than he does now at his present job. He recalls a recurring problem he had two decades ago while working at a private hospital in the nearby San Fernando Valley. There, he would often walk into patients’ rooms and discover homeless people sleeping in the empty beds next to them. It was one of many experiences that ultimately prepared him to run medical services in the largest jail facility in the county.
“Security in [private] hospitals is not all it’s cracked up to be,” sums up Eckhardt. “[At the Sheriff’s Department] I’m surrounded by literally hundreds of deputy sheriffs and when we’re seeing patients, they’re never really far away.”
Typically, nurses like Eckhardt treat inmates in two locations: the jail itself and the hospital they are taken to should complications arise. Before the patient is examined, Eckhardt will request to either have a deputy present or not. Often times he will choose to have an officer wait outside the door so that the patient will have as much privacy as possible. This is also done to preserve the patient’s HIPAA rights.
“They don’t have the perception of us like they do of deputies or cops. We’re going to help them. We are helping them. I don’t even know if I can count on one hand the number of times I heard of a nurse, you know, being attacked,” Eckhardt discloses.
Not only has he never been attacked by an inmate, Eckhardt says he has never witnessed a fight between a nurse and a patient at the jail. He proudly boasts that he has, however, seen many of his patients leave the facility healthier than when they came in. He explains, “We have a very underserved clientele. It could be that they don’t have health insurance so they don’t go to the doctor. Or they do have an emergency and they go to the doctor but they can’t afford what the doctor orders. A lot of our patients have drug and alcohol histories. When you’re doing drugs and alcohol, your medical care’s not ranking too high.”
Prior to the medical field, Eckhardt dealt with a very different customer base– as a buyer at an upscale department store. Prompted by a divorce and inspired by his mother’s battle with lung cancer, Eckhardt enrolled in nursing school. He said, “I was 45 when I decided to become a nurse. It just felt right on so many levels.” This would later be followed by a master’s degree in public administration and a master’s degree in health care management. He made the final leap into correctional nursing while working at a chemotherapy/pulmonary unit at a hospital.
“I really had a tough time coming in every night not knowing whether the oncology patient I was treating was going to live or die. It got to be a difficult thing to see,” Eckhardt reveals. “At that time back in 96/97 all the treatment options for cancer were not there. More and more people were dying from cancer than surviving.”
After hearing his woes at a family barbeque, a friend of Eckhardt’s who knew people in corrections urged him to apply for work in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. After an extensive six months background check, Eckhardt was in.
And, he has never looked back.
“I love what we do that other nurses really don’t have the opportunity to do, to really change people’s lives, to change the community that they go back into,” Eckhardt said. “[Otherwise] if we weren’t treating them… they’d just be back out on the street.”