A strike goes against what it means to be a nurse. I beg my colleagues to think again, writes NHS staff nurse CARMELAH JACOBS
Six months ago I received the late-night phone call that many of us dread.
My 75-year-old mum had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and had been taken to a London hospital, where doctors were battling to save her life.
My husband and I live more than 200 miles away in the north of England and, by the time we had made the frantic three-and-a-half-hour drive to her bedside in the small hours, it was too late. My beloved mum had already passed away.
I was devastated, yes. But I will never forget the kindness of the nurses who greeted me in my distress.
These were the men and women who had patiently sat by my mother’s bedside in her final moments – and allowed me in turn to stay with her for hours saying goodbye. ‘Take as long as you need,’ one told me.
Industrial action is expected to begin before Christmas, with reports it will take place over two dates, potentially a Tuesday and a Thursday
That compassion is a quality that, as a nurse myself, I value above almost everything else in my profession.
And while I have remembered my mum every day since, in recent days her final hours have been particularly on my mind.
After all, some of those same nurses who cared for her may now have voted to strike – for the first time in the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) 106-year history.
If such a strike action had unfolded on the day she died, my mum’s final hours – and my goodbyes – may have been very different indeed.
That is just one reason I feel enormously saddened by my peers’ decision to strike. There is no question that this action will have devastating consequences for countless patients and their families.
While the RCN has insisted that emergency care will remain unaffected, thousands of operations, chemotherapy and dialysis appointments will be cancelled.
Meanwhile on our wards, I have no doubt that it will mean some patients – people like my mum – may perhaps die alone or be left without the tender touch of a carer.
And that’s why I am urging my colleagues to think again about the action. Should they proceed, it will go against the very tenet of what it means to be a nurse – that the patient always comes first.
Should they proceed, it will go against the very tenet of what it means to be a nurse – that the patient always comes first
That vital principle is recorded in black and white in the Nursing and Midwifery Council code of standards (‘[you must] promote health and prevent ill health’).
Nurses do not, like newly qualified physicians, take the Hippocratic Oath, swearing to uphold a number of professional ethical standards. But what we are there to do unquestionably is to serve our patients. It is instilled into each of us from the moment we put on our uniform, until the moment we retire.
And it is a principle I first absorbed when, 17 years ago, I joined the nursing profession, following in the footsteps of my late mother, Gina, who was a nurse herself for more than 20 years.
My siblings and I were raised on the stories – some sad, some funny – that she told about her patients and the doctors she worked alongside.
She believed passionately, as do I, that nursing was a vocation. She was never interested in working for the money but she was proud of what she did.
It was truly inspiring and I have never once regretted my career choice; not even during the darkest days of the Covid pandemic, when I would return home to my husband and two young children exhausted and traumatised about what had unfolded on my ward.
My mother, who was a nurse herself for more than 20 years, believed passionately, as do I, that nursing was a vocation. She was never interested in working for the money but she was proud of what she did
I believed then – and I believe now – that this is what I signed up for. As nurses, we are trained to be prepared for anything. And while the Covid pandemic created the most extraordinary challenges many of us will ever see in our working lives, we all just had to get on with it.
That’s the job, one you don’t go into for self-advancement, or for money. You do it because you want to give back, and to support and help people through what can be some of the scariest and most important moments in their lives.
In return it can be enormously enriching, inspiring and humbling. Listen to the news and you may hear the occasional horror story – but what you don’t hear about are the countless meaningful connections made day in, day out.
The elderly woman who cries while you hold her hand. The desperately ill young man who breaks out in laughter for the first time in weeks at a joke you made. The former patient who spots you in the street and comes over to thank you for helping them out.
Of course, I understand my colleagues’ concerns and frustrations.
I know that in the busy hospital department where I work in Greater Manchester, morale is low among my fellow nurses.
The Royal College of Nursing confirmed that tens of thousands of nurses will strike this winter after a ‘historic’ ballot. General Secretary Pat Cullen (pictured) called it a ‘once in a generation chance to improve your pay and combat staff shortages’
We’re all working longer hours, covering areas we are not experienced in and frantically trying to make up for staff shortages.
There’s no question Britain is suffering a chronic lack of nurses: when I qualified I used to be responsible for between six to eight patients. Now it’s 12 to 14. Yet while workloads have increased, pay has not kept pace.
To many, the 3 per cent pay rise we were given last year in recognition of work during the pandemic was not enough.
But while I accept that disgruntlement, I also accept that the rough starting salary for nurses of £27,000 – rising to nearly £55,000 for the most senior – is not far off the average salary for many workers across the UK. I also appreciate that many public sector workers have experienced a total pay freeze.
Of course, as the cost of living soars, it is little surprise that many nurses are feeling undervalued.
In fact, I share that sentiment myself. But here’s the thing: I will not be joining my peers and colleagues on the picket line when the time comes. And I never will. Because when you have chosen to work in a caring profession, striking is never the answer.
Whatever grievances we nurses have should be addressed through proper negotiation and discussion, not through walk-outs which, whatever the rhetoric of union bosses, may lead to patient deaths. Even one unnecessary death is one too many.
But I also cannot help thinking of all the other direct consequences left in the wake of striking nurses – less dramatic on paper than death, but still devastating.
I also fear for how strike action will be received among the public – many of whom are hugely grateful for and supportive of NHS workers particularly since the pandemic
I’m talking about the hands not held, the small compassionate gestures not done, or the words of comfort unspoken to grieving relatives – as I myself was just a few months ago.
That is the grim reality of strike action, and it is why I will continue go into work as normal, to visit my ward and look after my patients.
No doubt it will mean working back-to-back shifts to make up for staff shortfalls – all the while knowing that whatever I do will still not be enough – but I and those who join me will do what we can.
Otherwise, I would never be able to forgive myself.
I also fear for how strike action will be received among the public – many of whom are hugely grateful for and supportive of NHS workers particularly since the pandemic.
But goodwill is not limitless, and strikes risk undermining it.
That it is why I am calling – begging – for my nursing colleagues who voted to strike to look into their hearts and think again.
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