'I've been a nurse for 30 years, and I understand why so many of us can't do it anymore.'

Those of us who are nurses, as well those working in teaching, the police, social work and so many others, deal with human beings at their most vulnerable or frail, as well as at their most aggressive and violent.

Like those professions, there’s a lot on the nursing plate, some of it incredibly positive and fulfilling, some harrowing or tragic.

Sometimes nurses witness things we wish we hadn’t: watching someone go through months of invasive treatments and feeling utterly helpless when they are told it hasn’t worked, a woman having a miscarriage in the bed in a room shared with three other people, a ventilator being switched off on a 22-year-old with a catastrophic brain injury, a child with deliberate burns to their legs from scalding bathwater, a woman who visibly cowers in fear when her partner enters the room.

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We also get to see the person who goes home, after complex trauma following a road accident. We see someone with new lungs, able to breathe properly for the first time in years, sometimes for the first time ever. We witness the arrivals and departures of human beings, and both are a privilege to be a part of. Even the deaths; especially the deaths, where our involvement may have made the process a little easier.

Nurses know that every time they take a blood sample, give a medication, administer a blood transfusion, care for patients having a procedure, and countless other seemingly mundane tasks, there is potential for harm.

I still remember, as a graduate nurse, feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility; that a moment’s inattention or carelessness could cost someone their life, and, on the flip side of the coin, that my skills and knowledge could make a difference, even be lifesaving. Nearly 30 years later, I still feel it.

Last year a friend suffered severe burns after a gas bottle explosion. Amid surgeries, skin grafts, dressing changes and a lot of top shelf analgesia, he told me that what affected him daily, more than anything else, was how he was treated by his nurse.


He needed explanations and rationale that made sense to him. He struggled with the frustration and powerlessness he felt when he wasn’t heard. It would have been easy to label him a difficult patient but it was those nurses who really saw and heard him who made the difference.

They were the ones who knew when he needed time to process things, when to reassure him or when to tell him to pull his bloody head in; who got him through the despair, pain and anger that clouded his judgement at times.

Some people may think of nurses as little more than glorified bum wipers, but once you are in a situation where you or your loved one cannot attend to the most basic needs and biological functions, even that task takes on a whole new perspective.

In the past nursing was described as a vocation. The vocation card was played often, a convenient pretext for paying (mostly female) nurses poorly.

Today nursing is a profession in which nurses, female and male, are highly qualified and skilled with an astonishing weight of responsibility, who should be respected and remunerated accordingly.

We accept nursing is challenging; the complexity of our patients’ conditions, new technologies, ongoing learning to maintain and extend our knowledge and skills and doing this while caring for our patients with dignity and compassion.

But it’s increasingly difficult to be the nurses we strive to be, in a system that is constantly pushing nurses to their absolute limit.

There are many reasons to leave nursing.

Night duty every three to four weeks is one thing in your twenties, quite another in your fifties. Shift work and rosters takes their toll on family and social lives with many missed birthdays, holidays and Christmas dinners. But nurses leaving because they feel helpless, worthless and pushed to breaking point again and again, or because they just can’t do this anymore, should absolutely not be one of the reasons. Yet it is.

Doing our best for our patients shouldn’t be at the expense of our own physical, mental and financial health.

The underlying themes are largely the same in the three countries in which I have nursed: under funding of services while demand increases, unsafe staffing and rostering, poor pay, too few resources, feeling undervalued and increasing aggression and violence.

'Underlying themes are largely the same: under funding of services while demand increases.' Image via Getty.

Many organisations have made positive changes, but whether you have a fulfilling career as a nurse should not be left to chance and the hope that the organisation you work for is one of the good ones.

Earlier this year, I read a thread on Mamamia about teaching, in which many people were bemoaning teachers with their holidays and 'easy' hours. Instead of turning on each other for the scraps from the table, we need to turn our attention to those carving up the pie.

Nurses don’t have the monopoly on caring or on having a tough gig. Caring means being able to do your job and doing it well, be it nursing, para-medicine, teaching or so many other fields. Constantly putting out spot fires and lurching from one near disaster to the next, does nothing to build capacity, confidence, skills or morale in any profession.

As long as people are stressed and stretched beyond their capacity to cope, good people will continue to burn out and leave the professions that so desperately need them.

We want to stay. We’re passionate about nursing and we’re good at what we do. We know that we make a difference, but we can’t do it on our own.

Feature image: Getty