Irish nurses around the world: ‘Emigrating was the best decision I ever made’

Nurses from New Zealand to South Africa share their experiences and gripes

Dr Helen Rook: ‘There is a wonderful synergy between nursing in Ireland and New Zealand and we have much to learn from and teach each other.’

Dr Helen Rook: ‘There is a wonderful synergy between nursing in Ireland and New Zealand and we have much to learn from and teach each other.’


Every year on May 12th the world celebrates the huge contribution made to international healthcare systems by nurses. The theme of International Nurses Day this year is “Nurses, a Voice to Lead: Health is a Human Right”.

Irish Times Abroad thought Irish nurses working overseas may have stories to tell and opinions to share on this theme, so we asked them about their experience of emigrating, and what it’s like to work as a nurse where they live now. Below is a selection of the responses we received.

Dr Helen Rook, Wellington, New Zealand

I first came to New Zealand in 2001 to experience a new country and culture, and was lucky to get a role practicing in the intensive care unit in Wellington Hospital. I met and married a kiwi-boy (Andrew) had two beautiful children (Conor and Aidan) and now have a lifelong connection to this country, Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.

My practice has changed over the years and I received my PhD in Nursing in 2017. Now as a full time academic at Victoria University of Wellington I research nursing values in contemporary practice, and the dissonance between the values of nursing and those that drive healthcare delivery.

The International Nurses Day theme, “A voice to lead: Health as a human right”, acknowledges the role that nurses have in influencing health and wellbeing for all people. Nurses are at the heart of healthcare and have a profound contribution to make. However, there are problems in healthcare and this has led to a discourse of unrest, resentment and disquiet within the nursing profession globally. In New Zealand nurses are agitating for better pay, conditions and staffing along with more positive and supportive organisational cultures (familiar story for Irish nurses).

The reality is that health services rely on the nursing workforce and we know from multiple research studies that patient outcomes are improved when they are cared for by highly qualified registered nurses. The conditions for nurses and their patients in Ireland are very similar to those in New Zealand. Both countries share much in terms of population size, healthcare priorities, and indeed, the associated financial constrains in meeting these priorities. There is a wonderful synergy between nursing in Ireland and New Zealand and we have much to learn from and teach each other.

That is one reason why I continue to collaborate with colleagues working in both the HSE and Irish universities. There is much work being done in both countries to improve the conditions in healthcare, particularly around safe staffing and values clarification. It is critical that this work is done because there is a highly skilled nursing workforce with the motivation to lead healthcare delivery, and they need to be supported in this endeavour.

International Nurses Day is a good day to listen to nurses voices, and think how healthcare climates can foster nurses to live their values and professionally flourish, because if nurses flourish so too will our global communities.

Sharon Steeves, Steinbach, Canada

Sharon Steeves: 'In the ten years I have been nursing, this one is the most uncertain for me.'
Sharon Steeves: 'In the ten years I have been nursing, this one is the most uncertain for me.'

The theme of International Nurses Day for this year couldn’t be more appropriate ‘Nurses a Voice to Lead: Health is a Human Right’. Last week on May 2nd 2018, I stood on the steps of our Legislative Building in Winnipeg, Manitoba with the presidents of both Manitoba and Nova Scotia Nurses Unions, and joined my voice with those of a thousand others as we as nurses protested the ongoing cuts to our health services.

Our Progressive Conservative Provincial government has in two short years undone all the growth and upgrades to our health system that previous governments had fought so hard to put in place. They have closed emergency rooms all over the province, laid off nurses, deleted positions and think they have made a difference for good. The shouts of “Shame” and “Care Not Cuts” still echo in my ears. Patients are suffering and we as nurses are on the front line. In the ten years I have been nursing, this one is the most uncertain for me as a nurse. We are working an unprecedented amount of overtime as we fill gaps left by deleted positions. Sick calls are at an all-time high. When asked about it our health minister Kelvin Goertzen said it was “the flu”.

Regardless, I love this career I have. The doing of something I’ve wanted since I was four years old is amazing. It’s more than a job: it’s a vocation. The DeSalaberry District Heath Center where I work is in a little French community in southern Manitoba, Canada. The hospital has an Emergency Room, (threatened with closure but still open), 14 acute care beds and an adjoining personal care home with 22 beds. The staff feel like family. I’ve worked in other hospitals including a big city one but I keep coming back here as it feels like a “home away from home”.

The future for me as a nurse may be uncertain but I am Irish and like thousands of others of my country men and women before me I will continue to speak out for justice and human rights. Every person has a right to affordable health care and it’s time our governments listened to us - we need to put patients first.

Laura Byrne, Cape Town, South Africa

Laura Byrne in South Africa
Laura Byrne in South Africa

Currently I am working as a volunteer at a community clinic in Cape Town which caters mostly to refugees from The Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Central African Republic. I have found the nursing quite challenging and very different to anything I’m used to. The patients are very vulnerable, sometimes only having the money in their pocket and the clothes on their back. I see a lot of things on a regular basis that previously I might have come across once or twice: TB, malaria, HIV, malnutrition. It constantly makes me aware of my privilege and how lucky we are in Ireland.

I trained and qualified as a nurse in Ireland. An Irish nursing degree opens so many doors. I worked as an agency nurse in Australia for a year. I got to work in so many different environments that when I got back to Ireland I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to specialise in. After a few years in Ireland I went off to work on cruise ships for a year. I worked for Princess Cruises and loved it. Nurses are first responders for emergencies on board, passengers and crew. On call you could find yourself running at 2am to anything from a crew member injured in the engine room to a passenger collapsed in a bar. Nurses on board were quite autonomous and triaged patients either treating them independently, referring to clinic in the morning or calling the doctor where necessary.

I found it quite stifling to return to public teaching hospitals in Ireland where nurses are drowning in outdated policies and procedures. On ships and in Australia nurses were expected to self govern their skill level and work within their scope of practice doing as much as they could. In Ireland this is unfortunately not always the case. Individual hospital policies differ and even though nurses may be competent in practicing a skill and have gained certification, they may need to retrain at the teaching hospital they are working to gain their specific accreditation. This can be true even of basic skills gained as a student. Often this can end up deskilling nurses as courses, funding and staffing are not always available for nurses to attend. There is a gap between what is taught in university about nursing and what happens in Ireland at hospital and ward level.

Michelle Roche, Victoria, Australia

I left Ireland with my young family. I had been working full-time plus overtime, but was barely paying my bills and had no quality of life. Five years later in Australia I live in a little piece of heaven, with a pool, horses, dogs, amazing friends, beautiful little community and money to spare. I’m still pinching myself. You get rewarded here for working hard. I’m now a unit manager with numerous opportunities to progress further. Emigrating is without doubt the best decision I have ever made.

Paediatric nurse Kerr Janer (second from right) with colleagues at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh City.
Paediatric nurse Kerr Janer (second from right) with colleagues at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh City.

Kerr Janer, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

I am a 24-year-old paediatric nurse from Limerick, currently working in King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh City. I worked in a children’s hospital in Dublin and I decided to leave in order to broaden both my professional and personal development. I now work in a big specialist hospital with people from multicultural backgrounds. The hospital is very supportive to its nurses and honestly, the financial reward here is far better than back home; we receive a generous tax free salary, free accommodation and 54 days paid annual leave.

When I was in Ireland, I used to commute every day on the bus from Limerick to Dublin, two and a half hours each way. I know that’s mad, but living in Dublin is very expensive so deciding to move here wasn’t a hard decision.

Aoife Griffin, Australia

I had the privilege of training as a renal nurse in Ireland and qualified in 2011. I worked in Ireland and the UK for the first three years of my career. In 2014 I decided to make the move to Australia for 12 months to gain experience in a different country and also unfortunately seek better working conditions than those I was faced with in Ireland. Four years on I am still living in Perth and working in a private hospital. I have progressed my career from a casual RN to management in this time and have gained invaluable experience. The contrast from the health services in Australia and Ireland are worlds apart with the resources available in both private and public hospitals here.

Leaving Ireland and working in Australia and the UK, I now appreciate the training Irish nurses receive at home. That training makes us strive to provide the highest standard of care to our patients. One of the first lessons I learnt as a student nurse was to treat patients as you would want your own parents to be treated. No matter what part of the world you are in, Irish nurses are highly sought after and have a highly respected reputation for the care they provided.

Aisling Fallon, Auckland, New Zealand

I moved to Auckland three years ago, looking to travel and gain more experience in my area of nursing. The Kiwis I was told had great work ethic and a passion for a full and energetic lifestyle. They did not disappoint! Healthcare over here is good; they have adequate funding but lack some resources and may be putting their money where it is not needed. However in saying all this

Nursing here is a pleasure compared to the unsafe and stressful levels we work with in Ireland. There are educational opportunities in various areas supported by the hospital, and numerous study days and hours you can take up at your leisure.

The pay is better than in Ireland, but nurses here are not happy and plan to strike this weekend. I think of our appalling conditions in Ireland and wonder how we have not done the same ourselves. I wish I was there to support all my fellow nurses and colleagues in Ireland; they do an amazing job and the connection I have to them will never be lost. But for now, being in New Zealand, and feeling more supported as a nurse here, is hard to leave.

Orla Maney, Melbourne, Australia

I have had great experience working as a kidney and pancreas transplant coordinator for the last 25 years. I came to Melbourne in 1988 and successfully trained as a dialysis nurse before becoming the manager of a large and acute dialysis unit. I then moved on to training as a transplant coordinator and watched as the lives of those on dialysis transformed after organ donation. I have remained in this role to date and am now a senior clinical nurse consultant who advocates for organ donation. I met and married a New Zealander, had three children and became an Australian Citizen. I have recently applied for Irish citizenship for my children.

Jacinta Pieterse, Canada

I came to Canada in 1991 and worked in a teaching hospital in downtown Toronto. My Irish nursing training has been well received. The experience in Canada has been very refreshing with colleagues open to your ideas, and past experiences. This is an interesting time as we are celebrating Nursing Week in Canada. I don’t ever remember it being celebrated in Ireland. I am now nursing over 42 years and it will always be my passion.

Anna Marie O’Rourke, Rennes, France

Anna Marie O'Rourke in France
Anna Marie O'Rourke in France

I’ve been working as a registered nurse in France since 2005. It was easy to get my registered working number but a lot more difficult to gain employment. There is no registered pay scale and salaries vary according to the place of work. I’ve seen the health service decline with budget cuts and low pay. I left a full time permanent job due to unbearable conditions. I would often work as the only nurse in the afternoon for 84 elderly patients. No doctor on site. I had to deal with palliative care and run the three floors. I became a specialised palliative care nurse but have been unable to gain employment . I currently work as a placement nurse in the city’s geriatric hospital. I still enjoy my job but wish there were more opportunities available.

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