Sunday, 5 Feb 2023

In my 30 years of nursing, I never thought I'd strike – today I'm am

Last week, I took 22 pizzas to the Emergency Department (ED) where I work, after hearing the news that a critical incident has been declared at my hospital, due to ‘significant pressures’.

It may seem like a strange thing for a critical care nurse to do, but I knew the staff would not have the time to eat, and would need every bit of fuelling and energy possible.

I was at the end of my shift but wanted to stay behind to give them the support they needed.

As I manoeuvred myself through the double doors, swiping my access card and balancing pizza boxes on my hip, what I came face to face with is sadly the norm now.

There were countless patients on trolleys lining the corridor. One man was vomiting into a grey cardboard sick bowl.

A woman crying, with tubing attaching her to the white oxygen cylinder lying beside her. A teenager covered in blood, with a cut face, swollen eye and missing front tooth.

His companion was already blaspheming about the unexpected indeterminate wait but I sadly knew he’d remain there for a good 12 hours.

A bit further along the corridor, I saw a woman trying to pacify a baby and an elderly man asleep on a trolley, his chest still sticky from a heart recording.

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Then there was the noise. Relatives complaining, doctors calling for assistance, nurses rushing past and police officers restraining a cuffed patient who was kicking the wall.

The tension and frenzy were palpable, the lack of staff, time and resources obvious.

I heard a nurse walk out, declaring, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ And I understood her.

For our team are on fire – and it feels as if no one is doing a thing.

I have been a nurse for 30 years and come from a family of nurses so it is in my blood to do my job to its full capacity.

I always wanted to be a nurse when I saw how much it meant to my mum. She’d come home at the end of the day and feel content with being able to care for people. Nursing them better gave her such fulfillment.

I absolutely love my job and even though working in critical care means I have to think on my feet and look after people in distress, knowing I am there to give them the medical help and support they need is amazing to me.

When I first started working as a nurse it was never as chaotic or traumatic as what we are seeing now. There were enough beds for patients, staff capacity was good and morale was high. Never have I seen it so low as now. I knew a nurse who took her own life recently. That is how bad it has become.

We support each other but the situation is out of control and care is not always as it should be.

Daily, managers and their managers discuss admissions, discharges, escalation, flow, permanently alert for the possibility of a bed being available for the queue of individuals requiring them.

We are acutely aware of how intolerable it must be for our patients, sick, in pain and often scared, to wait for hours on end to see a doctor or nurse, even if they do understand the reason for the delay.

And for those who complain about people ‘queue-jumping’, well, they would be shocked if they could catch a glimpse behind the closed doors or drawn curtain. Because that priority often suggests immediate life-saving treatment is taking place.

It’s shameful that our incredible NHS is drowning in such a way – a brilliant institution that provides unquantifiable care to absolutely anyone is suffering from catastrophic neglect.

I have never in my whole nursing career seen the hospital quite as it is now. Patients who require critical care are having to wait on the ward or in the operating theatre or emergency department until a bed is found.

These are so rare, we have created satellite areas in borrowed spaces and try to stretch staff to provide nurses to see and treat everyone.

But nurses – and, indeed, all NHS staff – are tired. Exhausted. Burnt out.

We put our own health to one side to nurse through the dark days of Covid but now things are worse than ever. And seemingly those who run our hospitals and NHS have nothing in place to cope with the current situation.

We need logical forward-thinking and finance. Community care, better GP services, more mental health support. Education in schools about health and well-being.

Youth clubs or space for youngsters who lack stimulation, role models and opportunity. Convalescence and rehabilitation centres.

And many, many more doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, porters, lab staff, ancillary and clerical staff and cleaners.

A number of NHS trade unions in England have voted to take industrial action, with Royal College of Nursing members striking this week.

Many of us feel uncomfortable with this plan – myself included. I have been a nurse for 30 years and I’d never thought in all those decades I’d need to withhold my work.

Yesterday and today, however, I did.

I am on the picket line but as I work in critical care my team and I are taking it in turns so patients are still covered. 

It is cold out there but the turn out gives us warmth and the support is incredible.

Everyone is tooting their horns backing us. 

They know the truth – we cannot keep working in these conditions for a meagre salary that does not acknowledge our role.

The current situation is unsustainable and enough is finally enough. We have to make our voices heard.

As told to Suzanne Baum

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