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Nurses are great, aren’t they?

Sacha Rowlands, a former NHS nurse turned NHE journalist, invites everyone to celebrate the invaluable contribution nurses make to the health service as part of tomorrow’s International Nurses’ Day.

Seriously, where would we be without them? Sure, they’re not perfect; they’re not infallible; they’re not omniscient; but they’re pretty great nonetheless.

As a group, they’re not the best at shouting about how marvellous they are – they’re a humble bunch. As we approach International Nurses’ Day, my social media is awash with nurses telling the world how proud they are of what they do. Not just proud, but privileged to do what they do. They feel lucky to be able to do it.

But for me, that’s not what International Nurses’ Day is about. Yes, it’s great that nurses feel that way about their valuable work, but I see tomorrow as a day to celebrate them. For the public to give thanks to nurses for what they bring to our lives, not for nurses to be grateful for being allowed to do it.

So, as nurses are notoriously bad at tooting their own horn, I’m going to toot it for them. In the interest of full disclosure, I should let it be known that before becoming a writer I was a nurse in the NHS for many years, but that doesn’t make me biased so much as well versed in the good, the bad and the ugly of the profession – and indeed the NHS.

I’ll start with this: nurses are not lucky to do what they do. They did not happen upon the profession by chance. They didn’t apparate into a surgical ward one morning, never to look back. Nurses are there because they made a conscious decision to enter into an intensive programme of training.

Very often this decision was made later in life – I myself was a mature student, and at the tender age of 22, was amongst the youngest in my cohort by a long shot. Many had completed access courses just to be there. We all juggled theory blocks, placements and coursework, while many had the added peril of school runs and young mouths to feed.

It’s a hard slog that gets no easier once they’re in possession of that coveted PIN. No longer able to hide behind the accountability of a supervising registered nurse, the newly qualified nurse lives in fear of losing their precious NMC registration. Not least because their tutors during their final year of training use it as a baton to beat them around the head with, in the manner of, “you mustn’t do x or else you’ll lose your PIN.”

Every nurse remembers their first emergency, their first breaking bad news conversation, their first death. Most probably don’t remember how many times they’ve cried, how many hands they’ve held, or how many times they’ve witnessed someone’s last breath. I guarantee they can tell you what body fluids they’ve had where in the line of duty, and how many times it’s meant a trip to A&E. As an intensive care nurse by trade, I’ve experienced all of these things far more than I care to mention, and there’s nothing like a bit of intensive care psychosis to spice up a shift with a few left hooks from hulking big men and tiny old ladies alike. All of this leads to the dark sense of humour that is accepted for the military but deemed inappropriate for a “caring profession.” But too often the old adage is true: if you don’t laugh, you cry – and if we cried as often as we should then nothing would ever get done.

Nurses can probably also tell you how often they feel underappreciated. It’s frequent, and probably a key driver for those that choose to leave the profession. The impression of not being appreciated comes from all directions. It’s difficult to open a tabloid without being hit with a story of how hospital staff are failing.

Worried relatives watch a nurse’s every move and recite what they have read on the internet, suggesting that a nursing degree is equatable to a 15-minute Google – incredibly deflating, and probably a byproduct of sensationalist media.

Year on year all Agenda for Change staff have faced a real-terms pay cut, and being offered a pay rise in exchange for increased productivity felt like a slap in the face – even for one no longer working in the profession.

Nurses are already overstretched and understaffed. They stay late at the end of their shifts, not because they want to, not because they don’t want to go home to their families, not even because their poor productivity has meant that they have fallen behind with their workload. There are two primary reasons: either patients needed them during the shift and so paperwork has had to wait until the end; or patients need them now and they can’t turn their backs just because they’re ready to clock off. Well, they can; they just don’t want to.

Funding for training for nurses post-qualifying has continually reduced too, leaving nurses despondent that their development is not seen as important, and hordes of them vying for one of the few places that their employers are able to fund.

Despite all this, nurses do feel lucky to be in their chosen profession – although believe me when I say that I know of very few who haven’t regretted their choice at some point in their career. Of course it’s not the pay and conditions that give them that warm fuzzy feeling inside. It’s the knowledge that their work is inherently important. It makes a difference to people’s lives, and that feels good.

That’s why they stick it out, even where they’re unhappy with the system – because for the ones that do, that feeling when a patient hugs them and says, ‘thanks,’ transcends the pay and the politics. For them, while a 9-5 with a fat pay cheque would be well-received, the knowledge that they’ve helped is more important. And that’s why they really are great.

Happy International Nurses’ Day!

Top image: Piotrekswat


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