JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Christin Eastman was choked, kicked and struck by an assailant while at work cleaning a restroom. The attacker was charged with attempted murder and assault.
The attack left her unconscious. She required surgery to fix her broken nose and dental procedures to straighten her front teeth and repair damage including a root canal.
But her most severe injuries were mental. More than a year after the assault, Eastman still deals with post-concussive syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Mentally it’s been a struggle,” she said. “I have good days, and I have bad days.”
Fear is an inescapable part of her life. Eastman, who has occasional flashbacks of the attack, is afraid to go out without her husband or daughter.
As a result, she’s been unable to return to work because her employer has been unable to make accommodations, a major disappointment, she said, since her employer, the North Dakota State Hospital, serves those with mental illness.
Eastman says her mental illness, in fact, is a direct result of her March 29, 2019, workplace attack — making what she views as the state hospital’s rigidity in not working to accommodate her illness all the more frustrating.
“I found it very upsetting that the hospital that serves mentally ill patients chose to terminate me over my now mental illness with PTSD,” she said.
The state hospital terminated Eastman on Feb. 1, 2020, after informing Eastman that it could not provide another employee to accompany her as a “buddy system” support to help her focus and make her feel secure.
“Your position has been held open for the duration of your absence with the goal of having you return to work with or without accommodation,” Rosalie Etherington, the hospital’s superintendent, wrote to Eastman.
The state continued to pay Eastman’s health insurance, and she received disability payments from the state workers’ compensation program until those were terminated in November 2019.
“You continue to be unable to perform the essential functions of your position, with or without accommodation,” Etherington wrote, informing Eastman of her dismissal, saying she did not meet the minimum qualifications for any open positions.
But Eastman said she completed medical assistance training 11 years ago, which she believes would allow her to do work performed by certified nursing assistants at the hospital. Hospital administrators didn’t ask her about that training, Eastman said.
The request for a work partner came out of a discussion with the counselor who is helping Eastman cope with her PTSD, she said.
“They said they could not accommodate that,” Eastman said. “They said they couldn’t pay two people for one job.”
In a discussion with the state hospital's human resources director, Bobbi Miler, and Etherington, the two administrators suggested an alternative, Eastman said.
“They even told me why don’t you let us terminate you — then I could collect unemployment,” she said.
But her workers’ compensation disability benefits would not allow her to collect unemployment. She either had to return to work or look for work, she said.
“I definitely expected more from the hospital, since they claim to be the experts in mental health,” Eastman said. “I don’t think they lived up to their role as a treatment facility.”
Patients at the state hospital include those being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
Through an online fundraiser, Eastman is seeking to raise money to hire a lawyer to fight to restore her disability benefits.
In a statement to The Forum, Etherington said she could not comment on Eastman’s complaints about the hospital’s inability to accommodate her mental illness disability because it is a personnel matter.
The decision by Workforce Safety and Insurance, North Dakota’s workers’ compensation program, to discontinue her disability benefits hinged on a determination that her PTSD was a “side effect” of the assault, not directly caused by the assault, Eastman said.
Her husband, Charles, is frustrated with that view, which he said equates a chronic mental illness with something like a broken bone.
"They’ve never looked outside the box,” he said. “It wasn’t a situation where she broke her leg or messed up her hip.”
State hospital administrators showed concern for Eastman by continuing her leave and benefits, Etherington said in her statement to The Forum.
“The North Dakota State Hospital had genuine concern for Chrissy,” she said. “However, we were directed to stop all contact with her by Chrissy and her family members. Refusing contact made it impossible to express personal concern. The only other way to show compassion was through our advocacy for extending leave and benefits.”
Although Eastman is learning coping skills from her counselor, she still does not feel comfortable in public or anyplace where she would be alone with a stranger.
“I’m nowhere near as bad as I was a year ago,” she said. Certain triggers cause problems, such as people walking behind her. She’s made some progress, she said, but it’s a slow process.
“I can’t just choose when I’m better or not,” Eastman said. “I didn’t ask for this to happen.”