I have been a registered nurse for just under a year, and over the last 10 years I have been an inpatient at Halifax area hospitals for twice that time. I have not been at the bedside long enough to have forgotten what it's like to be in the bed.
At the end of many shifts, I wrestle with crippling guilt knowing that, due to inadequate staffing, I was unable to do what I promised to do when I took the honour and privilege of placing "RN" after my name. I know too well what it's like to be a patient and to hand over your well-being to strangers you trust only because you see those same letters on their nametag. It's terrifying.
Now it's not just patients who are afraid, but over 33,000 health care workers in this province. The passage of bill 37 means health care workers will lose their ability to strike effectively. Patients' voices will be silenced because their caregivers will not be able to advocate on their behalf.
I believe deeply that the most important duty of a nurse is to advocate for people who are unable to speak for themselves, whatever the reason. Disease, old age, homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, abuse and the ravages of addiction place 31,000 Maritimers in QEII hospitals each year. And that's only those who are admitted.
It's also worth mentioning that, by their own numbers, the QEII treats 70,000 people yearly in its emergency departments and reports some 375,000 ambulatory clinic visits.
Each and every one of these people needs an advocate.
They need someone to speak up for them as they navigate the complicated and intimidating world of health care.
It is my duty to protect, guide and witness the suffering and healing of those people.
I do not take this responsibility lightly.
Inadequate staffing levels make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for nurses to carry out our duties with confidence.
When I need to treat eight patients–three in heart failure; one with cirrhosis; one actively dying and in dire need of pain control; two with diabetes facing amputation and another whose wife is crying because he doesn't recognize her–I am unable to do my job. I cannot educate my patient's wife about the progression of Alzheimer's disease. I cannot hold the dying woman's hand as she struggles to leave this life with dignity. I cannot offer a shoulder to cry on, or lend an ear when it's desperately needed.
I can do the bare minimum, and that simply isn't good enough.
It's not good enough for me, and it's certainly not good enough for the people I promised to watch over. We have an ethical obligation to speak up.
The Canadian Nurses Association code of ethics tells us "nurses support a climate of trust that sponsors openness, encourages questioning the status quo and supports those who speak out to address concerns in good faith."
When we strike for safe staffing levels, we are advocating for vulnerable people who need someone to shout on their behalf.
Nurses shouted for me when I was vulnerable, and now I am shouting.
Safe staffing levels are the best way to help alleviate this problem. We need less overtime and more regular staff. Lower nurse-to-patient ratios would help prevent medication errors, improve the quality of assessments, increase time at the bedside and allow nurses to do what we are trained to do.
When I need to treat four patients I am able to do diabetic teaching; walk with someone to help improve their mobility; explain what medications are needed and why. I can get to know my patients and their families. I can be a more effective advocate, and I can be a better nurse.
The safety of our patients is at risk, and when bill 37 was passed, so was that of patients served by the thousands of other health care workers affected.
We currently have very little power to advocate for our patients, and without the right to strike effectively, we will have almost none. Bill 37 is not only an attack on organized labour, but also an attack on the Nova Scotians that need us most.
Our right to strike protects patients.
It's that simple.