‘We’re on the brink of collapse.’ What eight Ontario nurses have to say on the state of a profession in crisis

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Ontario’s hospitals are facing the grim reality of nursing shortages.

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The conditions for overworking and experiencing burnout predate COVID-19, but the pandemic has exacerbated these issues. Also Bill 124, introduced in 2019, discourages nurses by limiting wage increases. Many nurses have said that repealing the bill will go a long way in retaining nurses. Others say that removing barriers to internationally educated nurses will help fill the gap.

The star spoke to eight nurses – some still working in the field and others who have left – to hear what they had to say about the state of their profession.


Birgit Umagba, Registered Nurse, Intensive Care Unit

Birgit Umaigba is an agency nurse who fills gaps in under-staffed hospitals in Greater Toronto Area hospitals. She mainly works in the Intensive Care Units of the two hospitals.

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She says what’s happening in nursing is a “state of emergency”—one that has taken years to build.

“These problems have always been here, we weren’t talking about them,” said Umagba, who has worked as a nurse for five years.

Umaigba considers herself a precocious worker as an agency nurse without access to benefits or paid sick days. Apart from this, she also says that there is a lack of support from the nurses in her situation. “I go to different hospitals, so we are considered outsiders.”

For Umaigba, part of the solution rests with repeal Bill 124.

“We cannot afford to lose experienced nurses. It is not about recruiting new grads, it is about retaining experienced nurses,” she said.

The other part is with nurses trained abroad. As a clinical instructor, Umagba has taught in programs designed for internationally educated nurses. She says she has to overcome many hurdles to practice in Canada and that much more needs to be done to help “bridge the knowledge gap”.

“They have the experience, they have the knowledge, they just need to know the psychosocial pieces, the cultural aspects, and know how to use the tools,” Umagba said. “But a lot of them are driving Uber or working at Walmart … instead of using their skills to address the shortage.”

Leah Waxman, Registered Nurse, Emergency Room

Leah Waxman, a registered nurse who has worked in the emergency department for eight years, says nurses are "running empty."

Leah Waxman is a full-time nurse working in the emergency department. He has been in this profession for 11 years and has been in emergency for eight years. She says the conditions and working conditions of nurses inside the hospital have gotten progressively worse during the pandemic.

“We had the first wave of nurses who left because of COVID. And then we have the second, third and fourth wave of nurses, simply because (due to) there is less staff,” said Waxman, co-founder of the advocacy group nursewithsign416, “We’re running empty.”

Waxman said that while some of the new nurses are leaving, it’s the nurses who are leaving it forever, that’s a major concern.

“If you’re a budding nurse, it takes years to learn the spectrum of what you can do and what you know. And, you know, you can’t change that with just a new nurse.”

Waxman continued: “We are on the verge of collapse. I think if things don’t change and if the public isn’t standing up and making changes while nurses take a stand, the public health system will collapse.”

Waxman said That repeal of Bill 124 would be a demonstration of support for nurses from both the government and the public.

“That would be a great first step. And then, depending on what happens from there, after the bill (repealed), the nurses can return to the profession. (and probably) the nurses won’t leave.

Nancy Halupa, Registered Nurse, Emergency Room

Nancy Halupa, a registered nurse who has worked in the emergency department for 23 years, says it's important to keep up with the current nursing force.

Keeping up with the current nursing force is important to Nancy Halupa, who has worked in the emergency department for 23 years.

Halupa says that now that there are so few experienced nurses left, they can’t take new hires or grades under their wing, resulting in them being “handed over to wolves.”

“I feel for them because (the new nurses) will get burned,” said Halupa, who, along with Waxman, co-founded the advocacy group NurseWithSign416.

According to Halupa, emergency room departments are not operating with proper nurse-to-patient ratios due to staff shortages.

“In the event of a (cardiac) arrest when the patient needs to be put on a ventilator, we need a nurse to do the meds, we need a nurse to do the charting, we need a catheter and help like A nurse is required to access the port. A doctor with a central line. “We need another nurse to bring us medicines and mix medicines for us, because most of our medicines are not pre-mixed,” Halupa said.

“And then, if God forbid, the patient goes into cardiac arrest, we need the body to do CPR. You can only do compressions for two minutes before you have to tap out because it’s exhausting.” And then it starts becoming ineffective so you have to switch off someone else. And we don’t have manpower anymore.”

Sarah Fung, Registered Nurse, Masters in Nursing

Sarah Fung, a registered nurse who has been working for 14 years and has worked in a variety of hospitals, says nurses are often considered "under the totem pole" in the health care sector.

Sarah Fung works as a Professional Practice Specialist, Home and Community Care. She has worked in nursing for nearly 14 years and has held positions as a bedside postpartum nurse and a neonatal intensive care unit nurse. She co-hosts a podcast, “gritty nurse,” where she addresses some of the issues with the profession.

“We’re in a health care situation where it’s been cutting, biting, biting for so long that a lot of nurses don’t even know what a safe employee-to-patient ratio looks like,” she said. .

“I have never worked in a single unit in any hospital where we have consistently had fewer staff… We are not made to care for more than four patients at a time in some areas and we are constantly called upon to That’s the expectation, and it just becomes a vicious circle.”

Amy Archibald-Worley, Registered Nurse, Masters in Nursing

Amy Archibald-Worley, a registered nurse who has worked for 11 years, said calling nurses "heroes" during the pandemic was more about politics, not how the nurses were feeling.

Amy Archibald-Worley, who has been a nurse since 2010 and co-hosts “The Gritty Nurse” with Fung, said calling nurses “heroes” during the pandemic was more about politics, not how the nurses are treated. was feeling

“We were drowning. We were scared and we were scared,” said Archibald-Worley, who works as a quality and patient safety specialist. “I think there would have been a different name that the nurses did ( Front-line hero) instead.”

Jennifer Madigan, former registered nurse, emergency room

Jennifer Madigan is a former Registered Nurse.  She left the nursing profession in June because she was feeling burned out and unable to do her job properly.

After 20 years working in the emergency department, Jennifer Madigan quit in June. She now works in vaccine clinics, as well as in dental offices administering IV sedation.

“It came down to a special day in February,” said Madigan. “A patient had come to us and unfortunately he did not make it. It was a very sudden passing and very difficult for the family. And I sat there and I was so burnt out that I couldn’t give them the proper, and more deserving, sympathy they needed in those moments. ,

That was the moment when Madigan felt no matter what her skill level as a nurse was, her “empathy is gone” and she felt she was “no good” to care for a patient. Madigan was tired of leaving work realizing that she was not doing her job properly.

“When you go home every day thinking about it, I gave 150 percent, however, I was only able to provide 50 percent of the care I know I am capable of due to staffing shortages, due to hallway nursing – (d) overall morale is non-existent. ,

Sophie Brindamour-Durocher, former full-time registered nurse, Emergency Room

Sophie Brindmore-Durocher worked as a full-time emergency room nurse for 17 years, and as the department's unit coordinator for the past three years.  She quit her job and was in an emergency realizing that the emergency department was no longer a safe environment to work in.

Sophie Brindmore-Durocher worked as an emergency room nurse for 17 years and became the unit coordinator in her hospital’s emergency department three years ago.

“I left because I felt the department itself was not the image I was used to, I didn’t feel like it was a safe environment for patients and even nurses,” Brindmore-Durocher, who has now transitioned from a full-time role to a casual role.

She says she would stay if there was better support and better pay for nurses.

“I knew that no matter what I was doing, it wasn’t enough,” Brindmore-Durocher said. “The ship was already sinking.”

Marida Etherington, former hospital nurse working in acute mental health

Marida Etherington, a serious mental health nurse, quit her full-time job at a hospital as the pandemic hit.  She felt that the hospitals were not adequately prepared to deal with the pandemic and had to leave to protect her family.

Marida Etherington resigned from her job as an acute mental health care nurse in March 2020, just as the pandemic hit.

Etherington had worked through SARS, and felt she had to quit her job to keep her family safe during the pandemic. She has now started two private nursing businesses.

Etherington agrees that the pandemic has exacerbated problems within the profession. She says nurses are working less and trying to do more because patients are sick.

“When the nurses are giving and taking care, who is putting in the nurse? You’ve heard reports of nurses being x fewer in the ICU. They’re really taking care of sick people. And if the nurse makes a mistake So what? If their workload has doubled or tripled, how is a person supposed to carry that load? And how long can a nurse carry it?”

Nurses have always been the front line of health care, but have never been more important during the COVID-19 crisis. In this ongoing series, we explore the many issues affecting nursing.

Urbi Khan is a Toronto-based staff reporter for Star. Reach him via email: [email protected]

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