Today the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation enters its third day of action regarding the recent pay dispute with the government related to pay and working conditions. These problems are rarely as simple as they are portrayed on a witty one liner banner, and the sort of public support the nurses and midwives are getting at the moment is indicative of the esteem with which the public hold them.
Beeping the horn as you pass a picket line is unlikely to significantly sway the opinion of the holders of the purse strings in the Fine Gael treasury. I don't know where the money comes from that they are looking for, I haven't seen the books. I don't even know if money solves the problem. It seems from listening to a lot of the debate that a big part of the problem is that they are massively understaffed and overworked. An extra couple of coins in the pocket at the end of the shift isn't likely to make the day much easier. Also, we have lost an entire generation of nurses to the Middle East and Australia. They are paid better, sure. Even if they were paid the same though, the whole quality of life in Australia makes quite an incentive package. As much as everybody says "There's no place like home", it strikes me that they are also likely the people that never got off a long shift in Accident and Emergency, and instead of driving home in the pouring rain, they just walk 1 km up from the Sydney Children's Hospital and they're on the beach for a barbecue dinner.
Pay parity in Ireland might prevent us losing another class of nurses and midwives to the other side of the Earth, but it's not bringing any home.
My limited experience of nurses in my work is on Anglesey and Cardigan Oral Surgery and Maxillofacial Surgery wards in Swansea. They aren't Irish nurses, they aren't involved in this dispute. What they are though is part of the same overworked, underpaid, underappreciated army of ardent angels. The Consultant is often thought of as the top layer on the pyramid within the workforce on the ward, followed by the Registrar, the junior doctor, the nursing staff and then the ancillary workers. This isn't the reality of the situation at all. The nursing staff are at every turn and in every department the most essential ingredient. The nurses I worked for were the most thoroughly professional and vigilant people in the hospital. They steered me in my early days, in addition to their normal duties, caring, cleaning, medicating and counselling , they were also helping to shape the young doctors we were. I saw them putting manners on junior doctors that were over confident, I saw them holding the hands of the junior doctor that whilst competent was discombobulated in front of cruel and arrogant consultants with a 'God complex'.
The nurses knew every patient and their families, practically living on the ward. The doctors were on the ward for no more than a couple of hours a day. The consultants even less so. The nurses all used to do this whilst openly admitting they could have an easier life working at Tesco and making more doing it. They certainly didn't go into the profession for the money.
Christmas Eve 2007 when every other junior doctor in my department was making their way home, I was clerking a patient for an emergency operation that was to be undertaken later that day, with the patient hoping to get home for Christmas. I didn't need to be there, but I was, extra credit maybe? Of the two and a half thousand bits of paperwork that were supposed to be in this mans chart, that I had spent 2 hours running up and down the hospital trying to gather, a job that is normally done by a team of three people. I had missed one crucial scrap of paper. As soon as it was noticed the consultant exploded like Mount Vesuvius, so much so that the patient nearly stepped in to help me out. This is no problem, it happens with this particular consultant. We just got used to it. The paper wasn't a major problem, you could get the result in a 10 second phone call, it was just that now was the perfect time for this consultant to get his vocal workout, and I was as good as the next guy. He could have gone easy on me because it was Christmas, but then I wouldn't learn. As the consultant turned to head for the door, with spittle from his screeching, accumulating in the corner of his mouth, and by this stage also my face, the nurse was already holding the results of his blood tests in her hand. She had got the results for me. He slammed the door, and the patient breathed a sigh of relief that he was gone. In the nurses other hand was a cup of tea for me. The nurses in this department really were golden. I doubt they are made any different in Ireland than in Wales.
A particularly sweet moment, care of the Welsh nurses, was like a joyous silver lining in a terrible tragic storm cloud. A family had been involved in a major car accident, a newly-wed couple had been seriously injured and another family member had been killed. Killed by a drunk driver. It was a terrible shock, and when that type of trauma comes into a hospital it hangs like a dark cloud over the staff as well, but in the days and weeks as their injuries improved the bed-bound couple who were on different wards were writing beautifully inspiring and heart lifting love letters, hand delivered by their nursing staff. Of course they were minding their other duties, but who would mind if whilst delivering blood results, they should also deliver a hand scrawled note.
On another week, we had an extremely busy four night run in A&E with non-stop bleeps to casualty for facial injuries, fractures, a car accident, numerous drunken assaults, domestic violence calls. A baby had been brought in with facial injuries thought to be related to an assault. Myself and my colleague had no sleep for two days and we had been in theatre all day in addition to our night shifts. Sunday afternoon after working almost non stop for 36 hours, we got paged to the paediatric ward. The nurse had saved us a lamb dinner from the trolley. It was cold, the gravy was congealed, it was only a kids portion. I don't care how good the lamb is supposed to be in Ireland. That was the best plate of food I've ever eaten. The nurse who saved it for me doesn't remember it, she doesn't remember my name, my mate and I didn't stay in medicine, we both went back to dentistry having had an amazing experience that affected our outlook on sick patients, certainly transformed my surgical skills, but most of all profoundly influenced my opinion on the nursing profession.
Everyone says they know nurses do great work, that they know how hard they all work. They do all you think they do, and they do an awful lot that you'd think someone else should do, and they do it all for less than you would.
There's a lot of talk about Florence Nightingale this week, but the nurses today aren't recognizable from the work they did 20 years ago never mind 200 years ago. It's time they were treated with the respect that their efforts and their education deserve. What they are asking for isn't even enough, they deserve more, all the gold in the treasury wouldn't be enough to pay them what they deserve.
Its time to show them the money!
Join them if you can this weekend.