Christian voices join NSW nurses' 'cry for help'
‘Sometimes pastoral care requires political action’
Christian nurses and even hospital chaplains joined thousands of nurses and midwives who rallied outside Parliament House in Sydney today, as well as in regional areas of NSW, calling for higher staffing levels and better pay.
Protestors are pushing for an increase in staff to patient ratios in public hospitals, with COVID-19 tipping the already stretched health system to its limit. Nurses say this situation is not only compromising their own health and safety but that of patients too.
Intensive care nurse Julie Butterworth – a member of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association who also happens to be a Christian – has spoken publicly about the burnout she and many of her colleagues are experiencing due to inadequate hospital staffing during the pandemic, having appeared on The Project and on Sunrise.
“Over the past three years, I have been seeing everyone I work with struggling and everyone broken down in a job that they used to love. And not only that but feeling ignored by the government that they are working for, and being told that they are fine when really, they are broken inside. And not being able to do anything about,” Butterworth tells Eternity after attending this morning’s rally in Sydney.
“In Emergency, they were triaging people in the parking lot …” – Julie Butterworth
While she’s working a shift tonight and needs to get some sleep, she has found a window of time to comment on a cause very close to her heart.
Butterworth, who works in a major Sydney hospital, shares that she has seen several colleagues resign from their jobs and another still working there is battling with “massive anxiety”.
“Sometimes [nurses] will be shaking as they enter a shift because they’re just so exhausted,” she says.
She describes the symptoms of her own burnout: “Mental and physical fatigue, numbness, a lack of empathy and just feeling like you can’t care anymore … And that extends to care for yourself. Sometimes you don’t have the energy to cook for yourself or the energy to go outside.”
To give an example of just how overworked staff at the hospital are, Butterworth shares, “Around New Year’s, during Omicron, we had educators taking patients and we had team leaders and shift coordinators taking patients – that’s how extreme it got for us. In Emergency, they were triaging people in the parking lot …
“That was at a time when the government was saying the hospital system is coping, which also adds to that weariness and feeling unsupported and like it’s not worth it anymore.”
“We have to protect the rights of our patients and promote safe working conditions.” – Julie Butterworth
Butterworth joined staff from around 150 public hospitals who participated in strikes across NSW today, with only a skeleton team left to care for patients. However, Butterworth makes the point that hospitals are permanently operating on a “skeleton staff”. As part of the rallies, NSW nurses are asking the government to implement mandated ratios (like those in Queensland and Victoria) of one nurse to every four patients on every shift and a pay increase above the government’s prescribed public sector offer of 2.5 per cent.
Of course, it’s not just nurses themselves who are at risk because of staffing conditions, says Butterworth, but also patients.
“One of the agreements when we become a registered nurse, is to promote patient advocacy. We have to protect the rights of our patients and promote safe working conditions,” she explains.
“To have all these nurses, in their own way, advocate for their patients outside of the hospital, felt like this big, epic cry for help. That’s why I went to the strike today. I wanted to be amongst all of those fellow nurses who have that same passion and desire to care for vulnerable people, and to speak up and advocate for [our patients] in the only way we could, and that was to strike.”
“Solidarity is the political name for love.” – Matt Baker
Chaplain at another major Sydney hospital Matt Baker says he has also witnessed the devastating impact of recent pressures on nursing staff.
“As a hospital chaplain, I have worked alongside nurses as they bear the weight of an already broken system which has collapsed in the pandemic,” Baker told Eternity today while on his way home from the rally.
“The government insists that we are ‘coping’, but in reality, nurses are understaffed, overworked, and underpaid. Sometimes pastoral care requires political action. This is why I stand with the nurses and midwives: solidarity is the political name for love.”
Baker shared one of his reasons for joining today’s strike in a Facebook post: the death of his colleague at Liverpool Hospital, mental health nurse Praween Maharaj.
Maharaj died on April 17, 2020, while working at of the hospital’s mental health units. While Maharaj’s family claim they were told his death was a medical episode, they later discovered he’d been involved in a confrontation with a mentally ill patient. During the struggle inside the nurses’ station, Maharaj reportedly hit his head as he fell to the ground.
Low staff to patient ratios, poorly implemented COVID-19 restrictions and run-down facilities could all have contributed to Maharaj’s death according to sources who spoke to The Sydney Morning Herald.
In joining the rally to support nurses across NSW, Baker said in his post: “Enough is enough. Staff and patient safety are being compromised.”
When asked why it’s important for Christian voices to support nurses and midwives, Butterworth answers: “Nurses and midwives are the ones who are caring for vulnerable people. And Christians should support caring for the vulnerable in society – that is something that we’re called to do.
“I think it’s important to put aside selfish and individual desires and to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. So even if Covid is not affecting you, to have a perspective that is other-person focussed, that is selfless and humble. Supporting nurses means supporting an industry that is known to be caring and selfless.”