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# student nurses
'I put an 11-week-old fetus into a little coffin': Student nurses to the Taoiseach in their own words
A number of nurses contacted Micheál Martin following a Dáil debate over pay in December

MORE THAN ONE hundred student nurses wrote to the Taoiseach in the immediate aftermath of a Dáil motion that would have seen them paid for placements during the pandemic.

The motion, which was voted down by the government in December, called for the reinstatement of a payment given to nurses and midwives on clinical placement during the Covid-19 pandemic, among other measures.

During the initial phase of the pandemic, many student nurses acted as healthcare assistants to assist the sector and were paid for the work they did. However, this arrangement is no longer in place.

The Taoiseach described the motion at the time as “simplistic” and something that was designed to gain traction on social media. 

Many student and full-time nurses also contacted Stephen Donnelly’s office directly; last week, revealed what they told the Minister for Health.

Over 100 emails were also sent to the Taoiseach by student nurses in the aftermath of December’s vote. Copies of some of these emails have been released to under the Freedom of Information Act.

Some nurses sought a reply from the Taoiseach or an acknowledgement that he had received their emails, but there was no response to a query by to his department about whether this happened.

Here are some of those nurses’ stories and what they told the Taoiseach in their own words following the debate about students’ pay. Some pieces of correspondence have been edited for length.

Warning: Some readers may be upset by the graphic nature of these stories.

‘We are the future of healthcare’

“Fianna Fáil’s 2020 election manifesto pledged ‘An Ireland for All’ – it is clear to see that Ireland’s student nurses were not part of this agenda.

“I love nursing, I love caring for people and being there for someone at their most vulnerable. I would never regret my career choice. It is so rewarding – but don’t get me wrong, it’s exhausting: physically, emotionally and mentally.

“The staffing shortage on wards in times of Covid-19 is shocking and extremely high risk. Figures showing how staffing levels have increased mean absolutely nothing. Until you actually go on wards, you won’t know how shocking it really is.

“On one occasion, there were only two nurses for 25 patients: two students and no healthcare assistant. I would like you tell me how can you call this educational?

“The workload put upon us student nurses is increasing by the day. The respect – or lack thereof – shown to student nurses across the island of Ireland is appalling. We are the future of healthcare.”

‘I ended up getting a horrific reaction to the PPE and ended up on numerous courses of steroids and sleepless nights with pain’

“I took a student nurse contract during the first wave of the pandemic. I jumped in to help out a health service that was crumbling.

“I didn’t do it for any other reason only I knew I could help, but I really thought this show of solidarity would mean that the Government would appreciate us and have our back going forward. I thought wrong.

“Along with coming home every night petrified that I would contract or spread Covid to my family, I gave instructions to my other half on my advanced care directives if I become incapacitated if I contracted it. Can you imagine having those conversations?

“I ended up getting a horrific reaction to the PPE and ended up on numerous courses of steroids and sleepless nights with pain, but I still went back on the frontline.

“I now wonder why, when the government feels we are not entitled to a decent living wage as student nurses or interns. The excuse of protecting our education is nothing short of disgusting.

“Spend an hour on the wards with student nurses and see how the ward literally cannot function without us putting our shoulder to the wheel every single day.

“I have a mortgage. I have bills. I have to pay over €7,000 in student fees for online learning. I have to pay to be exploited.

“When I am on placement, I have to pay €14 a day for parking at the hospital, as it’s not safe to walk down dark streets to get public transport at 9pm at night.

“I have held hands of those who slipped away peacefully. I comforted families as they watched their loved one being resuscitated.

“I missed my breaks and went home exhausted and starving because we didn’t have time for a break.

“I have run down corridors calling out for help as a patient rapidly deteriorated. I have sat with families as they are given the most horrific news.

“I would do all this over and over again because I love being a nurse, even if my health and safety is at risk.

“I cannot earn a living as my employer has confirmed that I am not permitted to work with them, as they are afraid I will bring Covid info the workplace from the hospitals. You are forcing us into poverty.”

‘I worked for more than 75 hours a week for eight consecutive weeks’

“I can assure you that without the contribution from student nurses, your flawed healthcare system would collapse.

“We embark on our four-year training degree knowing that this is not a career that will make us rich. But we are not looking for a lot, just a fair deal to be made so that we can focus on our education.

“Due to the lack of financial support from our government, I was forced to work a minimum of 45 hours per week in my part-time job while on placement so that I could afford to go back and complete my next semester of college.

“This meant I was working more than 75 hours a week for eight consecutive weeks.

“Since I work with a vulnerable population in my part time job, I have had to give up working while on placement during the pandemic to avoid cross contamination between clinical areas.

“I am one of thousands of student nurses being exploited by this government, which is why we need the government to keep their promise in supporting us.”

‘I have had patients scratch me and I have had patients shout abuse at me, and I had no idea what to do’

“I sincerely hope you never have a family member who will be sick and in a hospital where nursing students ‘not doing real work’ will care for them.

“In my five weeks of placement I have lost count of the times I have been left unsupervised and scared.

“On my second day of placement I gave a patient a shower. I was terrified. I had never done this before while unsupervised. I was terrified this patient would fall or slip, and I had no idea what to do if they did fall.

“On Mother’s Day, I sat with an elderly woman and read out her cards from her family. I held her hand as she told me stories about her family so she didn’t feel so lonely

“The same day, I spoke on the phone to another patient’s family and informed them of the patient’s progress. I put the patient on FaceTime to her family. Due to her dysphasia [difficulty in putting words together to communicate] and the impact of her stroke she had difficulty communicating.

“I helped her communicate to her family and I could see with my own eyes that the patient massively improved.

“I was never given proper training on how to do a glucose test for diabetic patients. A
fourth year had to teach me. After I was taught, I performed this task over a dozen
times unsupervised.

“I have removed IV cannulas unsupervised, while terrified of hurting a patient or making them bleed. I have had dementia patients scratch me and I have had patients shout abuse at me, and I had no idea what to do.

“Nursing is a course in which you are thrown in head first. Students don’t simply sit in the corner.”

‘Sometimes money is so bad that I can hardly pay for food’

“I am a student mental health nurse.  I talk with service users who express severe distress, including talking about suicide. I have washed, cleaned, shaved, dressed, fed and changed wound dressings for people who cannot themselves.

“I have spent 11 hours on my feet with not a single cent for my work. This would be considered free labour in any other context. I work two part-time jobs and sometimes money is so bad that I can hardly pay for my most basic needs, including food.

“Now I’m looking towards an internship and I would get paid less than a healthcare assistant who needs only minimal qualifications and has dramatically less responsibility.

“Nurses and student nurses have sacrificed enough of their sweat and tears in trying to provide care to those who are vulnerable while being mistreated by a broken system.”

‘I have isolated from my family for over three months’

“Since I became a student nurse, I have worked as a healthcare assistant in two different nursing homes. I cared for people who contracted Covid-19 and have seen the devastation it has brought to people.

“I had to leave my job in order to attend my placement in intellectual disability homes and a general hospital placement. I have isolated from my family for over three months. I am now working on a Covid ward in December.

“As nurses and healthcare assistants, we deal with palliative care and sudden deaths. We have to learn how to cope with harsh realities. This is not the issue we are raising to you.

“But it shows how little people outside of healthcare are really aware of the job we do.

“There is a fear we all have going into placement every day with no financial support, minimal emotional support, and the apparent lack of respect we are getting from the government for this real and highly challenging work we do.

“I am drained financially, psychologically, emotionally and physically. I never asked for this when I signed up for my CAO.

“I always wanted to be a nurse and I still do but the treatment I have gotten over the past nine months and the conditions I have been forced to work under makes me question if I can even get through each day, let alone the rest of my career.

“I am passionate about the work I do, but it’s just not enough anymore. I feel like I’m screaming into the wind. I want to learn and work, but I cannot continue the way things are. I am scared, lonely, anxious and disappointed. Give us some hope.”

‘I spend €10 a week on food. That may seem crazy, but its all I can afford’

“It’s not easy listening to elderly people cry daily for their parents when I can’t get them, and I can’t break it to them that they are gone.

“It’s not easy to wash six patients myself while the nurses are doing the drug rounds and they’re too busy to bring me with them. It isn’t education.

“I pay huge fees for accommodation because digs won’t take student nurses for fear of what we will bring back to their family. I don‘t blame them because I don’t want to go near my own family.

“I worked from mid March as a healthcare assistant and spent my birthday in the emergency department caring for Covid-19 patients. Everyone told me we’ll celebrate when it’s over.

“I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t want a clap. I want you to understand that we are being exploited and it’s not right.

“I spend €10 a week on food. That may seem crazy but it’s all I can afford. I just want you to appreciate that we are sacrificing a lot and doing real work, caring for people who can’t care for themselves.”

‘In more shifts than I would like to count I have been defecated on’

“I had a shift where a patient died very unexpectedly. It was my first experience with death as a student. I had to prepare the body for the family to see. We washed her, brushed her hair and laid her out, all while continuing to speak to her and giving her utmost respect. I sobbed on my way home.

“On another shift, I was dealing with a very confused dementia patient, which is unfortunately a common occurrence and such a difficult illness to watch.

“This patient was particularly aggressive and would shout, scream and hit me as I tried to carry out simple tasks. I am not blaming the patient for this because they had this illness, but encountering and dealing with cases like that for your whole shift is very draining.

“I’ve held patients’ hands as they were scared and felt alone, especially in recent times when they have not been able to see their families.

“I have organised FaceTime calls for elderly patients to see their family and have done my best in assuring them that their loved one is being looked after.

“In more shifts than I would like to count I have been defecated on, peed on, gotten blood splashed on me and had someone vomit on me.

“As nurses, we carry on with a smile. We don’t mind this happening, we are used to all of this. But to say this work is unworthy of pay is absolutely gut-wrenching to me.

“I have sobbed over dying patients, I have sobbed over the fact that patients are no longer allowed visitors and can feel alone or forgotten about, I have sobbed over the change of bringing Covid home and putting my family at risk, and I have sobbed over exhaustion.

“It makes me so demotivated and upset when I hear people speaking about our roles like this. We are an essential part of the staffing team in the hospitals.”

‘I helped an elderly patient during his depressive slump’

“An experience that stands out to me, and shows how invaluable the work we do is.

“I helped an elderly patient during his depressive slump. The gentleman hadn’t seen his family, had little motivation left and was dying.

“I took time away from my education to sit with him. He told me about his younger years and his love of dancing in his local town hall. I got him up and we danced around the ward.

“It was the first time the nurses had seen him smile, and saw him be himself. This transformed the patient and helped him be himself again. This wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t there.

“Tasks like this would not be done if students weren’t there. The government needs to wake up.”

‘I broke down on my break and cried from exhaustion’

“One particular day I arrived to work at 7.30am for my third 12-hour shift in a row. As you can assume, I was already exhausted and drained.

“I started by helping an elderly man who had dementia eat his breakfast. On four occasions, I was punched in the chest due to his restlessness and aggression as a result of his condition. I carried on my work in pain for the next twelve hours, unpaid.

“For the rest of the day, I took vital signs, cared for patients who cried onto my shoulder because they missed their family or were scared.

“I washed and showered six patients sharing a room by myself, without any assistance because the other nurses were so busy with medication rounds and other activities.

“I helped a nurse removing sutures for one patient, because she was so overwhelmed with other work. I was scared.

“I broke down on my break and cried from exhaustion, knowing I would have to return to the ward for more mental and physical care afterwards.

“I arrived home at 9.30pm and went straight to sleep because I had to get to wake up the next morning to work another job to earn money. I did this for six weeks, my first ever placement as student nurse.

“It is an insult to refer to the work I do as ‘not real work’.”

‘I placed an 11-week-old fetus into a little coffin’

“I work on an antenatal ward, and I had to support a woman through a miscarriage. She was alone due to current Covid-19 restrictions, and as you can imagine this news is quite upsetting. I had to carefully take her 11-week old foetus and place it into a little coffin.

“I have suffered emotional trauma from this, but I understand this is part of my job and what I have to do. I do it with care and compassion and I do it for the mothers and babies in our care.

“We have mothers angry with us because their partners have to sit in a car outside while they are in early labour, while they have a scan which can often reveal devastating news, while they sit in the emergency maternity area because they have had blood loss mid-pregnancy and are scared out of their wits.

“I shouldn’t have to suffer financial strain.”

‘I got a dying patient cleaned up and comfortable enough for their family to say goodbye to them’

“One morning when I started a 13-hour shift I donned my PPE went into a three-bedded low-high risk Covid bay to make sure that the patients that I was taking care of were awake and eating their breakfast.

“The first interaction that I had that morning was with a very sick patient who was dying and had signed ‘do not resuscitate’ papers. I can’t describe the sadness and privilege it was to get this patient cleaned up and comfortable for their family to say goodbye.

“On my last placement, I looked after a very confused patient who was at low-risk of Covid-19 but who was considered a falls risk. As students, we are not supposed to be acting as special healthcare assistants doing one-on-one supervision of patients.

“But I was happy to do this because this is where I was needed.

“I am aware that you want to investigate why student nurses are being ‘forced’ to wash and care for Covid patients, but the answer is short-staffing and this situation isn’t going to get any better if the nurses, midwives and students are left in these conditions.”

‘I held a mother’s hand after she miscarried her twins’

“In my second semester, I was put on placement in a paediatric ward and a maternity ward. In the paediatric ward, I had to watch and aid in the delivery of care of an infant having a serious seizure.

“I was dressing wounds for children after an appendix removal, when I noticed that a child’s wound was not right and was oozing too much for post-operation. The colour was not right, and I informed my nurse. The child was put on antibiotics to prevent sepsis.

“Attached to this unit there was a special care baby unit, where I washed neonates [newborns] and fed them when their mothers could not come in.

“I spent one day there holding a baby who was born to one mother who was an addict, and this baby screamed and screamed for the four hours I was in the unit.

“In the maternity ward I was on, a baby came out blue and I had to put out the call for a medical emergency. I was the one left comforting a mother while she wondered why her baby wasn’t making noise like the rest of her babies did.

“On another occasion, I held a mother’s hand after she miscarried her twins. To me, that is real work.”

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