I am a nurse – this is why I’m striking

Nurses want to force Ministers to address concerns over pay and understaffing

January 8th, 2019: Members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) plan to stage six strikes over pay in the weeks ahead.

 

I have yet to meet a nurse or midwife who wants to go on strike. Yet after more than three decades in nursing, I joined with 95 per cent of my colleagues and voted for industrial action.

This doesn’t come naturally. I became a nurse in 1984 because I wanted a job where I could care for people – often at the most vulnerable point in their lives. The thought of not being there for patients is gut-wrenching.

But, like my colleagues, I feel like I have no choice. For well over a decade, Ireland’s nurses have articulated our frustration at what is happening to our health service.

The Government hasn’t been listening. For me, this strike is about standing up for our patients and forcing Ministers to take our concerns seriously.

Pay is the solution to this strike, but it is not the cause. The cause is the understaffed services we work in every day – where uncompetitive wages mean the public health service cannot recruit or retain enough nurses and midwives to work safely.

Waiting lists

This understaffing is what lies behind many of the headlines you regularly see about the health service: long waiting lists, record trolley statistics and avoidable mistakes being made.

Members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation protesting over conditions of employment outside Leinster House two years ago. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation protesting over conditions of employment outside Leinster House two years ago. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

But it is also what lies behind the working reality I face each day. I am a day theatre nurse, dealing mainly with elective surgeries, such as dental, urological or ENT work.

Our theatre was supposed to reopen on Monday, but overcrowding and understaffing elsewhere in the hospital meant we were redeployed to plug gaps elsewhere. We were shut for the same reason on Tuesday. At the time of writing, I do not know if we will be open on Wednesday.

Thinking of the future, I see the new nurses training alongside me. They are dedicated, educated and planning to leave

Theatre closures are becoming the new normal. My hospital – despite the best efforts of staff and management – is typically the most overcrowded in the country. More than 10,000 patients were stuck without beds here last year. Understaffing has left us scrambling to cope and unable to increase bed capacity.

As a result, our specialist surgical skills go unused as we are redeployed. The waiting lists for procedures grow longer and the system clogs up even further.

The same is true of my colleagues in emergency departments, wards and community services up and down the country. We are angry because we want to provide a standard of care that we can be proud of and know is safe.

This is simply not possible if patients are on trolleys, crammed into busy corridors where the lights are always on, the noise never stops and there is no space for dignity, family or recovery. Privacy is impossible, with sensitive questions about medical history answered practically on top of strangers.

Even the basics of human health are compromised: where is a patient on a corridor trolley supposed to brush their teeth?

The pressure of understaffing is growing. Doing one nurse’s work in your 50s is a challenge, but doing the work of two or three is simply too much. Watching an experienced colleague burn out under years of pressure has sadly become a regular event.

Thinking of the future, I see the new nurses training alongside me. They are dedicated, educated and planning to leave. They look overseas and see safer conditions, better nurse-to-patient ratios and substantially higher pay.

They also see that nurses in other countries are treated equally: paid the same as those with the same degree requirement, such as physios and occupational therapists. In Ireland, the starting salary of a nurse is more than €7,000 lower than these health professionals, despite having similar degrees and working longer hours.

I want the next generation of nurses to stay, but can’t blame them if they don’t. Other countries recognise and respect their skills, qualifications and value. Nurses are now valuable global assets – and the competition is heating up.

As a result, the Health Service Executive now admits there is only one application for every four available nursing posts.

The decision to strike comes following an overwhelming vote in favour of strike action by its members before Christmas in support of their pay claim. File image: Bryan O’Brien
The decision to strike comes following an overwhelming vote in favour of strike action by INMO members before Christmas in support of their pay claim. File image: Bryan O’Brien

I’ve seen more yesterdays than tomorrows in Irish nursing. The tomorrows are not looking bright. Selfishly, I find myself wondering about the standard of care as a future patient.

Pay commission

The Government, however, denies that these problems even exist. The Minister for Finance told the Public Service Pay Commission the Government could not consider a pay rise for us. The commission’s report mentioned the lack of statistics on nursing vacancies, but Ministers have used it to dismiss our concerns all the same.

In Ireland, the role of many nurses has become that of an apologetic ambassador for the health service, ceaselessly saying sorry to patients for the conditions they face. I don’t want to apologise any more. I just want to do my job properly.

Without a pay rise, the simple fact is that we won’t be able to attract enough nurses to safely run the public health service.

I have voted to go on strike and while it will be one of the toughest moments in my working life, I am prepared to stand united with my colleagues and friends, determined to secure a pay rise and safer service.

The Government has lined up against us. When you are at your most vulnerable, nurses and midwives are there to help you. Now we are asking for your help and support.

Ann Noonan is a senior staff nurse at University Hospital Limerick. She writes in her capacity as an Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation member

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