Bob Aller September 20, 2019
This report focuses on an incident involving ER nurse Susan Kuhnhausen. Her self-defense training at Providence Hospital in Portland, Oregon, appears to have contributed to her ability to protect herself. Fortunately, when a life-threatening encounter occurred, Susan was prepared to handle it. Nurse Kuhnhausen had also been a leader in advocating for legislation to protect nurses in the workplace.
In this report, a self-defense expert analyzes the actions taken by Susan. Though this incident occurred in 2006, Susan’s remarkable skills are even more relevant today. The increasing level of violence impacting nurses throughout the U.S. is a major concern for staff at hospitals. (See details regarding violence against nurses.)
Susan’s words to others resonate: “You’re stronger than you know.”
Susan’s Story Begins On Her Way Home From Work
After Susan’s shift ended on a Wednesday evening, she drove to the nearby Perfect Look hair salon for her appointment. She was wearing her blue nursing scrubs from work. While waiting, she remembers reading a poem in an Oprah Magazine. She recalled a couple of the lines: “I will not die an unlived life, I will not live in fear.” Her stylist remembered Susan stating that she was thinking of getting a new hair color because she was going through a tough estrangement from her husband.
After her appointment, Susan drove a couple of miles to her 2-bedroom Cape Cod home in the Montavilla neighborhood of Southeast Portland. She unlocked the kitchen door and heard the beeping of her security alarm. She disarmed it. Though she and her husband had been separated for a year, (after 17 years of marriage), she had not changed the alarm codes. Her husband had been there that day and left an odd note by the microwave: “Haven’t been sleeping… had to get away… went to the beach.” The Oregon coast was 80 miles away.
Something Was Wrong
She noticed that her bedroom was dark. She entered the bedroom wondering why is the room dark?. Could she have forgotten to open the curtains as she did every morning?
It Happened Quickly
From behind the bedroom door, a man came at her swinging a claw hammer. He wore yellow rubber gloves. He had a tan baseball cap low over his eyes. She blurted: “Who are you? What do you want?” There was no answer. He was swinging the claw hammer.
ER Nurses Trained To Assess Encounters Quickly
For most folks, an intruder in the house swinging a hammer would mean run, scream, back off. But Susan had nearly 30-years of ER experience. Over the years, Susan often dealt with codes. She assisted with emergency procedures opening chests and performing heart massages. Susan treated patients thrashing from street drugs. From her self-defense training, she knew just how to slip out of headlocks and clutches and take a person down. Her experience had also taught her to be a quick thinker and problem-solver.
Susan Immediately Rushed The Attacker
As the attacker came towards her, Susan countered by rushing at him. She knew that the swings of his weapon would be less effective if she stayed close to his body. His first blow glanced off her.
At 5-foot-4, Susan was shorter. He was 5-foot-9. But she outweighed her attacker and a surge of adrenalin gave her more strength. Susan said she slammed her body against his, trying to push him over. But he didn’t fall. Instead, he pushed her against a wall of her bedroom. He then blurted the words: “You’re strong.” She sensed: He’s here to kill me.
Susan pushed him again. During the struggle, she managed to wrestle the hammer away. Then, in a flurry, she hit him in the head three times, maybe four with the hammer, delivering blunt force trauma to the head. The attacker suffered a deep scalp contusion and a deep scalp hemorrhage from the blows. Still, while dazed, he was able to grab the hammer back. Quickly, Susan grabbed his throat.
Squeezed The Attacker’s Airway
From her experience as a nurse and her training in self-defense, she knew all about the vulnerability of a person’s airway.
“Who sent you here?” while her hands squeezed his airway. She held tight. She wanted to be sure he couldn’t hurt her again. Continuing to block his airway, the intruder’s face didn’t look good. Susan let go. She prepared to flee. “I thought,” she says, “I just had to get out of there.” As she ran from her bedroom into the hallway, he grabbed her. He spun her around, punched her, split her lip. He punched her again. She fell to the floor.
Susan had no idea who she was battling. The police later identified the attacker as Edward Dalton Haffey.
Attacker’s Chilling Criminal Background
His rap sheet included convictions for robbery and burglary. But on Feb. 28, 1991, Haffey arranged the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Georgia Lee Dutton. Her decomposed body was later found on the bank of a river. Haffey pleaded to conspiracy to commit aggravated murder on March 14, 1994. He spent nine years in the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution before he was paroled in 2003. He was high on cocaine during the encounter with Susan.
He Stood Over Susan With A Hammer
“He was standing over me with the hammer,” she says. “I looked up and I thought, I’m going to die today.” Somehow, she was able to pull him to the floor.
She said she felt like a downed power line snapping on the pavement. Susan remained strong.
Biting The Attacker Was Critical
If she was going to die, she thought, teeth marks could link him to her. She started to bite. Wrestling on the floor, she bit his arm, his rib cage, his thigh. Susan’s severe biting continued. He dropped the hammer, dazed from the pain of her counter-attack. Finally, as both were wedged on their sides in the hallway, she threw her left leg over the attacker’s body. She climbed on top of him and hooked her left arm around his neck with her right forearm against his throat. It was a chokehold. “Tell me who sent you here and I’ll call you a “fu…ng ambulance,” she yelled. He said nothing but he growled. For a second, she thought her ex-partner might have sent the attacker.
Susan Resolved The Encounter
Susan did not relent. She finally had him on his stomach. She was convinced he would not let her escape. Susan tightened her chokehold. Time passed. She pressed harder. She held firm. Finally, he stopped moving. Exhausted, she grabbed the hammer and walked out of her house to a neighbor, Ann Warnock, who then called 911.
Ann Warnock: “We have an intruder in the house next door.…The intruder was in the bedroom with a hammer. The woman who lives there thinks she may have strangled him. He was down when she left.” Dispatcher: “Can you put her on the phone?” “She’s bleeding.” “Does she need an ambulance?” “No, she’s a nurse. She says call an ambulance for the guy. He may be dead.”
Dispatcher: “What did she use on him? She strangled him. What else did she do? She put a chokehold on him.” “I’ve got help on the way. Stay on the line.” “She has a hammer here.” “Don’t touch it. Don’t touch it. Just leave it there.” She hit him in the head several times. That’s the hammer he had with him. She struck him, and she strangled him, and she thinks he’s dead.” Dispatcher: “Was he by himself? Did he have anybody with him? “No.…She expressed a concern it may have been her ex-partner who sent the person.”
The police found Ed Haffey dead in the hallway. Personal effects found in his pockets included a $5.00 bill, bus transfers, a glass tube with burning at one end, a partially used matchbook, and an empty sandwich bag. Mr. Haffey’s urine and his blood tested positive for cocaine.
Ironically, an ambulance took Susan back to her place of employment, the nearby Providence Hospital ER. Her fellow nurses and staff buoyed her spirits.
Self-Defense Expert Analyzes Susan’s Encounter
Self-defense expert Bob Thurman reviewed the details of Susan’s encounter. Mr. Thurman is a former Professional Karate Association World Champion for eight years. Now, he teaches self-defense training programs incorporating mental awareness, psychological strategies, and tactics and techniques for surviving and escaping an attack. Mr. Thurman teaches self-defense classes accredited for continuing nursing education in several states.
(The following Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.)
Q: How do ER nurses deal with self-defense?
A: They’ve got attitude. They’ve faced so many confrontational situations. It could be someone high on drugs, a gangbanger, even an extended family member giving a nurse a bad time. ER nurses are especially good at sizing up a situation and remaining cool under pressure. They’re ready to deal with most anything.
Q: What role did intuition play in Susan’s case?
A: Intuition is key for self-defense. When Susan stepped into her bedroom, she knew something was wrong. Her curtains were drawn shut and she knew she opened them every morning. That was the first signal. When the attacker rushed her, that was the second signal. She knew instantly he wasn’t there for the money. He had something much worse in mind.
Q: What role does a quick response play?
A: Susan attacked immediately. The longer you wait to counter-attack the more dangerous it gets. She didn’t hesitate. That’s one of the factors that appears to have saved her life. She wasn’t incapacitated from fear or anxiety. This nurse kept thinking analytically during the struggle.
Q: How important is the individual’s level of anger during an encounter?
A: I always teach that you’ve got to get really angry and focused right away. Focusing the anger gives you adrenaline. I think women have powerful survival instincts. Women also have a higher threshold for pain. They can use those instincts to protect themselves.
Q: What role did the biting play?
A: I think biting was a major factor contributing to her survival. She bit the guy multiple times. She said she intended her bites to be evidence in case he prevailed but she also knew her teeth were a weapon. I think the biting probably freaked him out. After all, he had flesh torn off his body.
Q: What about going for the throat?
A: We teach people that one of the most vulnerable places to attack is the throat. There are simple techniques to go for the throat.
Q: Did Susan do the right thing by first trying to escape?
A: Absolutely. We teach nurses to always getaway at the first opportunity. Here, Susan tried, but he caught her in the hallway. During the fight, she asked him to give up and he didn’t. She made the decision to disable him before she would try to get away a second time. From the evidence police gathered, it’s clear he was there to kill her.
Q: How would you summarize the encounter?
A: Susan presented a textbook defense. She did everything right. Her mind was the ultimate weapon. She reacted immediately. She never stopping thinking during the encounter. The attacker had all the advantages coming in. She turned the tables on him. Her anger and focus gave her the adrenaline she needed. We never teach what she ultimately did, but she did what she had to do. I take my hat off to her. It shows what’s possible when a nurse is well-trained in self-defense.
Plot To Kill Susan Unraveled By Portland Police
Susan’s intuition about her estranged husband’s role in arranging the attempted murder was confirmed by the Portland police. While claiming complete innocence, her husband pled to a prison sentence. He later died in prison from prostate cancer.
Comments From Susan
After the encounter and the aftermath, Susan Kuhnhausen made a clean break and changed her name to Susan Walters. She is now retired and an activist helping other victims of crime. She summed up her experience. “If you can’t run and you can’t hide, you have to fight. I didn’t choose my attacker’s death for him,” she said. “I chose my life.” She said: “If you feel like, ‘wow I don’t feel like I can do that.’ You can. You’re stronger than you know,” said Susan.
Susan’s encounter occurred in 2006 and was widely reported in the media at that time. In 2016, a followup story in Oregon’s Willamette Weekly added more details. Our report is based on the various articles that included interviews with Susan. We also reviewed the autopsy and toxicology reports from the Medical Examiner.
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