AUGUSTA — Nancy Austin’s left eye is still bleeding and her face is streaked with dark bruises.
Five days after being slammed in the face by a chair allegedly wielded by a patient at Riverview Psychiatric Center, Austin, 68, is recovering at her Augusta home, making the rounds of doctors’ offices and hoping to return to work.
“They couldn’t stitch my face,” she said. “I have a jagged tear under my eye.”
Her neck and back were injured as well. Austin can hardly recognize herself in a mirror.
“I work 16-hour days. I am fit as a fiddle. I am so strong,” she said, referring to her condition before the attack.
Now she’s in pain and relying on family friends to drive her places.
On the advice of her attorney, Neil Shankman, Austin did not want to discuss details of the incident Saturday in which Frank Stewart, 23, allegedly attacked her. Stewart is charged with aggravated assault.
Austin is the acting charge nurse for the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. She works in the Upper Saco Unit in the 92-bed state hospital, where staff members have endured several particularly vicious attacks by patients in recent years.
In March 2013, Mark P. Murphy attacked a mental health worker, beating her in the head with his fists and leaving her with a pen point embedded in her hand.
That prompted the hospital to bring in corrections officers to help with handling particularly aggressive patients, and it ended up attracting the attention of federal regulators who then decertified the hospital, citing a variety of reasons, and making it ineligible for federal money. The state is appealing the federal government’s action, which has resulted in the loss of $20 million.
On Tuesday, Riverview Acting Superintendent Jay Harper told lawmakers that acuity specialists – who are hired to assist with behavior and safety concerns – were sent to the unit where the Saturday attack occurred and brought the unit back under control within minutes.
He called the attack “an unfortunate reality of the work that we do.”
Austin worked at Riverview for five years before retiring in 2011 to help care for her daughter, who was wounded while serving in the military in Afghanistan.
After spending time in Florida, Austin returned to Maine this spring and was rehired at Riverview.
She has bachelor’s degrees in psychology and nursing and a master’s degree in counseling.
Austin said she loves her work, and the attack has not daunted her, although she said she will request a transfer to a different unit on the civil side of the hospital’s civil side, where patients are sent from other hospitals for long-term psychiatric treatment. The Upper Saco Unit where the attack occurred is occupied by patients sent there through the criminal court system.
She recalls being thanked by a patient two years after she used the Heimlich maneuver to save him from choking.
“It’s a wonderful day when I know something I have done has made somebody else’s life better,” she said.
According to an affidavit by Capitol Police Officer Joseph Morelli, Stewart struck Austin with a chair.
“Mr. Stewart was angry with the staff because he refused to give the staff an aluminum plate,” Morelli wrote.
Stewart was committed to Riverview by a judge after being found not criminally responsible for assaults on corrections officers at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.
In a separate previous case, Stewart was sentenced to Long Creek until age 21 after he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 5-year-old boy in July 2009 while on a beach outing with other juveniles from the center, and he was placed on 12 years’ probation.
Stewart was several weeks shy of his 18th birthday and was charged as an adult even though he was to serve that sentence at Long Creek.