Bleeding nurses

Justine Toh considers the infinite challenge of nursing, and why so many are leaving the profession.

Australian nurses are quitting the profession in droves, I read this week.

It’s likely that medicos were burnt out long before the last two years of operating in pandemic crisis mode. These days, however, staff shortages, prolonged stress, poor pay, and the very real possibility of contracting the virus themselves – including from sick patients who’d previously refused the jab – has become the not so new normal for nurses. No wonder so many are done.

Not just Australians either. The US and the UK are bleeding nurses, including the nurse singled out for praise in 2020 by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Jenny McGee from Invercargill, New Zealand stayed by his bedside as Covid-19 left him struggling to breathe, he said. In May this year she left the NHS, citing low respect and low pay.

Upon his recovery, Johnson called the National Health Service “the beating heart of this country… [that] is powered by love”. But as the pandemic applies further pressure to underfunded hospitals, those we count on to care for us are being bled dry.

It’s not only the actual work of care that’s exhausting but the entire enterprise. The object of care work is not a something but a someone – a unique, irreplaceable person with many needs, only some of which the medical system is equipped to address. Which isn’t a criticism: in a suffering world seemingly lurching from crisis to crisis, there’s a tragic nobility to work that dares to take on infinite human need behind the face of each individual patient.

And if infinite need, then perhaps one that can only be met by an infinite God. It’s kind of a miracle, then, that mere mortals would sign up for the task. The least we could do is pay them better for it.