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‘It was just a nightmare,’ burned-out nurse says




Burned out…


These were all too familiar experiences for registered nurse Cindy Hamilton-Tait. She expected to work until she turned 65.

Three years shy of her goal, the emergency room nurse at the Saint John Regional Hospital had to leave. The job she loved became too much.

Chronic overcrowding, a lack of beds and a shortage of nurses left her feeling overwhelmed, burned out and emotionally unable to care for the sick and injured, she says.

Hamilton-Tait retired March 31, 2016 – the now 64-year-old a casualty of a high-stress workplace common in hospital emergency departments across the province, country and continent.

As previously reported by the Telegraph-Journal, hospital researchers found nearly half of nurses and support staff have left the SJRH emergency unit over the last seven years, citing work-related stress.

Thank God, it’s over’

It’s 2016 and after a particularly draining work day, Hamilton-Tait arrives home in Kingston.

She makes herself a cup of tea and heads outside to breathe. Cradling her cup, she stares out into the backcountry, in search of peace and thinks to herself: “Thank God, it’s over.”

She sits in silence before resuming her other roles as a mother and wife.

Until her retirement in 2016, Hamilton-Tait spent 25 years caring for the sick at the Regional – the last 19 in the ER.

The registered nurse remembers the beeping monitors, bustling from room-to-room for check-ins while keeping tabs on the line up of ambulance crews waiting to offload their patients forming in the hallway.

“Your brain is going a mile a minute” she says of wheeling stretchers back and forth down corridors flanked by 40-odd beds, all taken.

But in more recent years,she witnessed the unit she cut her teeth become overcrowded and shorthanded.

“If you ran out of beds,then you had to beg, borrow and steal from other units,” she says. “It was just a nightmare and there was no one else coming to help.”

She remembers reaching for a handset and calling up other floors, begging them to accept a waiting patient to free up space.

“We need beds open, we need to get these people out.”

A worrisome turnover rate

The study’s lead investigator, Dr. Michael K. Howlett, a career emergency physician and Dalhousie University professor, called the unit’s near 50 per cent turnover rate worrisome.

He suspects the unit’s morale may be linked to constant overcrowding issues, where admitted patients waiting a hospital bed create a backlog in the emergency department – some of whom are waiting to move to long-term care.

In response, Horizon Health Network said it defines turnover as when a staff member leaves their organization, not when employees transfer from unit-to-unit.

In a statement, the Department of Health said the government is aware of nursing shortages and “working actively” to find a solution. The province created a committee with health care representatives this past December to come up with a long-term plan, wrote department spokesperson Paul Bradley in an email.

Hamilton-Tait says some shifts were marked by trauma-fuelled adrenaline. Others were wrought with painful reminders of the vulnerability of human life.

And finally, joy, such as being part of a medical team that brought a 39-year-old father of five back to life.

“Nurses love to care for people, it’s in our genes or something,” she says.“But you get to the point where you just can’t give what you want to.”

Her emotional energy slowly but surely waned after her husband, Jack, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“I couldn’t cope with trying to help people there and worrying about him at home,”she says.

“There has to be some fuel left for us.”

Reflecting back on her quarter-century-long career, she credits the unit’s sense of teamwork for helping her persevere.

“We were always watching out for each other …It got us through the hard times.”

For previous coverage on nursing burnout study, go to telegraphjournal.com

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