Push Hands in the ER: A Surprising Benefit of Tai Chi in Hospitals

(Greg Hooper, who is currently seeking ATCQA Tai Chi Instructor Certification, has been working as a Security Officer in the busiest emergency room in Sonoma County of California for about 10 years. In this article, he tells his stories of how he goes “hands on” with out-of-control psychiatric patients, panicking but still big and strong dementia patients, angry relatives of critical patients, etc. If you are interested in learning the details about how he applied the Push Hands skills on his job, please go to the Resources for Tai Chi professionals.)

People starting out in security work in a hospital are always unprepared for how physical in can get in dealing with people. Even my previous job, providing protective assistance and relocation for victim-witnesses, wasn’t usually as physical with people.

About ten years ago I decided to take an opening for a security officer position in a hospital for the steadier and “safer” work it would provide. Much of my time is spent in “the busiest emergency room in Sonoma County,” California, according to ambulance medics in the area.

By that time I had been practicing Yang and Wu (alternating) Tai Chi every day for 22 years. And I have also been practicing Push Hands (“Tui Shou”) though not nearly as often, with other Tai Chi people.

Security staff are most often needed to “physically manage” out-of-control psychiatric patients or panicking but still big, strong dementia patients that are a bit much for the nurses to handle. And at times we also have to go “hands on” with angry relatives of critical patients; domestic-abusers trying to get into the treatment rooms of their victim spouses; “narcotic seekers” not getting the prescriptions they want; and the occasional people injured in gang fights along with their “family members” who bring them in.

My first disturbance call, ten years ago, was very foretelling of how Push Hands would wind up being surprisingly useful in this job.

This first “hands-on” call that I responded to involved a 55 or 60-year-old male psychiatric patient who was “big, strong as a bull and totally nuts.” He was running through the halls thinking that the police or CIA was coming for him.

Finally a big psychiatric nurse and another male nurse caught him just in the hallway. They tried to get him down on the floor for a sedative injection in the thigh. But he seemed rooted to the spot. Reacting in a Push Hands like way, I went up to his front, placed my right hand around the back of his neck with my forearm resting downward in front on his chest and pulled the back off his head toward me, tilting it forward so that he was suddenly looking down at the floor. At that moment he ‘lost his root,’ or, his ‘heaven and earth axis’ broke, and he easily went down with the nurses cushioning his fall. We held him for the injection and talked calmly to him until he voluntarily went back to his room. He also gradually started thinking more clearly and became apologetic.

Sometimes, even older female patients can be surprisingly strong in their panicky, disoriented states, trying to leave, or move in a dangerous direction. But it would also be dangerous to even slightly uproot this type of patient back since they may fall. So I just stay in front of them doing a partial roll-back, rotating them toward one side, then the other as they try to push past me, but without letting them loose balance. After a few of their failed attempts at trying to get past me they just tire out. That is when we can just talk to them again about cooperating with the staff trying to help them. I’ve done that exact same, ‘roll-back and rotate thing with other disoriented or panicky patients an almost countless number of times in different kinds of situations since then.

Push Hands always gives me the edge to out-grapple people, including even big guys, without straining myself or getting hit or kicked by them, and without needing to hurt them either. My co-workers always seem happy to push me to the fore whenever these problems arise. And some of them are practically twice my size and half my age (I’m 5’10, 160 lbs, 61years old). And what I do is always just very basic Push Hands, just reactively to the situation.

Another thing I’ve done even more often is a more subtle kind of ‘roll back’ so that I can get such a patient back to their room or bed. I push lightly on their chest or shoulder so that they will resist, leaning into my hand. I then pull my hand back suddenly an inch, they fall forward back onto my hand, then while they are ‘out of their root, I easily move back several steps toward their room or bed. I just repeat this, maybe one more time moving them back a little more. Then they become compliant because they are a bit startled by how easy I did this.

The more experienced security and nursing staff is sometimes a little defensive about me doing things my way in controlling patients, and or why it always looks like I get the strong patient ‘at a time when he doesn’t seem so strong’ with me and seems to wear out so fast. But they never try to correct me because what I do, using very basic Push Hands reflexes, work. It looks to them like I did something easy and no one got hurt as sometimes happens with more forceful controlling actions.

So many times, a psychiatric patient will suddenly attempt to walk or even run out of their room trying to get away. Yet I find myself standing up and stepping swiftly in a way that blocks their path. Whichever direction they turn and move in, I turn and move also, as seemingly precise as a mirror reflection, keeping them from getting around me. It’s startling to them and to the staff who see it.

Within about three or four seconds of my precise mirroring type of blocking motion, they just stop, and look at me startled. All the while, I’m saying things like, “you really do need to finish your treatment here. Otherwise the police are just going to drag you back in here�.” Then they return to their room with a bit of a baffled look on their faces. And I return to my chair, a bit impressed with myself, but trying not to show it. I’ve tried to repeat it by having friends try to move around me in fast unexpected ways for me to ‘mirror-block them,’ but it doesn’t work nearly as well. I then realize that I need to keep my mind out of it, and just find someone to practice more Push Hands with.

There are many, many more times than I can remember when ‘roll back’ in the variations described above made a big difference; and when “knowing what the opponent will do before he does” in the latter cases of mirroring my ‘opponent’s’ motions has discouraged aggressive behavior. And again, while all I’m doing is very rudimentary Push Hands actions, it is with people in my workplace who are trying to do something quite different with me, often quite forcefully. Yet I dominate, and no one gets hurt.

Comments are closed.