As I write this, thousands of nurses in New York are taking strike votes. Thousands more are struggling with impossible patient loads. Most of us leave work exhausted and unfulfilled, unable to deliver the kind of care we’re trained for. Like teachers, we’re responsible for a precious yet vulnerable population, are beloved by the communities we serve and exploited by the systems we work under.
Some of us have nightmares, remembering we left out important documentation, forgot to do a task or share critical information with the nurse on the next shift. Or we worry about patients discharged too soon, or families whom we know will return shortly with a grandmother no one can care for, as outside supports for her simply don’t exist.
We leave work haunted by the image of an emergency room that resembles a post-disaster rescue tent, or an in-patient floor with patients’ feet dangling off stretchers serving as their hospital “beds,” housed in open corridors, with only thin screens for privacy. We agonize about the new mom we didn’t get to work with on breastfeeding and basic issues surrounding bringing a new baby home.
We invent work-arounds for computer documentation or unrealistic policies that impede our ability to interact with our patients with intelligence and compassion. We suffer the indignities—and even violence—visited upon us by frustrated patients and their family members, as we serve on the front lines of a dysfunctional medical system that we have absolutely no say in or control over. Meanwhile, administration blames us for everything that goes wrong within that system, even as we point out its inefficiencies and failures on a regular basis.
What do nurses want?
We want to practice our profession with the respect it deserves. We want to care properly for our patients. We want to rejuvenate the joys of compassionate care, to ensure its rewards will excite our youth and encourage them to pursue nursing as a career. We want the necessary tools to do our job. We want to go home knowing we can also care for our families and ourselves.
Recently, one of our young nurses blogged the following: “This is the first morning I left the hospital feeling like an excellent nurse…able to spend quality time with my patients. My 95+ y.o. shared her secrets to a long life while I helped brush her teeth and wig, visited with former patient and saw his wounds were healing incredibly well, and my cute little noninteractive patient finally spoke to me and took her p.o. meds…”
Why is a day like that an aberration? Did an oversight occur, resulting in adequate staffing for the shift? Shouldn’t every shift be filled with such experiences?
They’re not listening
Every health system in which NYSNA nurses work receives Protests of Assignment (POAs) on a regular basis. These POAs are combined into “Patient Care Chronicles,” providing an overview of the abysmal working conditions that result in an increasing number of nurses leaving the profession.
Understaffing—the refusal of our hospitals to adhere to minimum nurse-to-patient ratios or reasonable caseloads for community care providers—results in preventable morbidity and mortality rates for our patients. But our employers refuse to listen to us when we try to salvage what’s left of the nursing profession and insist upon being able to fulfill our role in caring for our patients.
The last resort
All workers strike for dignity and respect in the workplace and for improvements in the quality of our own lives. Those of us who provide essential services are constantly told, “There’s no money in the budget.” Who’s accountable for such budget decisions? We see enormous waste, unnecessary lavish expenditures, taxes that starve the working class while providing endless benefits to the super-wealthy. As community advocates, we can’t stand by while monies are diverted from healthcare and education in order to enrich corporate coffers.
Nurses decide to strike when it becomes a matter of life and death for our patients. When months and years of meetings, documentation, evidence, petitions, letters, research, protests, speeches, essays, negotiations, pickets, rallies and media outreach fail to achieve these goals, our employers leave us with no other choice.