After yet another exhausting nightshift, Émilie Ricard, a 24-year old nurse from Quebec in Canada, shared a post to her friends on Facebook. Her message went on to grab the attention of not only nurses, but also of the public and politicians, and now appears likely to lead to rapid reforms to address the long-standing problem of nurses in the province being totally overworked.
In the Facebook post, Émilie shares a teary-eyed selfie with a sarcastic thumbs up. The lengthy post starts off by questioning the reality of the health minister, Gaétan Barrette’s, remarks that the health system reform is a success. Émilie then describes the reality of nursing based on her own experience.
She had just returned from a night shift where she was the only nurse looking after 70 long-term patients. She is always in a rush, unable to take breaks, unable to clean heavy patients properly because she cannot turn them on her own, and cannot deal effectively with patient complications. Many mornings she is also asked to stay on and work overtime. When she gets home in tears from exhaustion she is unable to sleep, concerned about the patients whose condition was unstable and worried about the tasks she had to leave undone and about the quality of care that she is able to provide. While she often wonders about what other jobs she could do, she loves her work and sees nursing is her calling – but things have to change.
While Émilie only wanted to share her feelings with her Facebook circle, the post was shared over 55,000 times within two days. It also trended on news media, with Émilie being interviewed on TV and even appearing in a newspaper cartoon. At some facilities, nurses staged sit-in’s in support and at other exhausted nurses adopted the pressure tactic of refusing to start their shift.
The federation of nurses in Quebec (Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec or FIQ), commented that it described a typical day in the life of the burnt-out health care workers across the province. When asked to respond to Émilie’s cry for help, The Minister of Health, Barette hit back by saying that more full-time positions for nurses had been created but that the nurses just weren’t applying. Premier Philippe Couillard’s response was that health workers in the public health system would always be pushed to the limit because resources would never be at the same level as the needs and that this was admirable. Both accused nurses for feeding a vicious cycle by portraying a negative image, including videos that the FIQ released in which the risks of the nursing shortage were compared to, for example, children who are in danger at a holiday camp because only one instructor was responsible for it.
The FIQ President, Nancy Bédard, responded by stressing that the vicious cycle was the result of the fear of having a job where you have to work 10 days in a row with many hours of mandatory overtime that made potential candidates stay away. According to figures released there were in fact 3,000 nurses available for 800 positions to be filled.
By February 6, under pressure of opposition parties, nurses’ issues dominated discussions in parliament. Émilie’s message was referred to frequently and her name was mentioned five times during the question period.
On the same date, a meeting was held between Barette and FIQ’s Bédard to discuss solutions to the problem of nurses’ being overworked. At the conclusion of the meeting, Bédard expressed the view that the minister was now aware of the scope of the problem. “The commitment I understood from the minister today was that he was going to make things happen and that we needed to have quick results,” she said. Barette, in turn, acknowledged that nurses have legitimate claims, saying that “the issue of ratios needs to be revisited and updated.” Another meeting is planned in two weeks’ time.
Émilie never expected such a reaction when she posted on Facebook. “They tell me to continue, to be courageous and to make them listen. Society is concerned by this and it does not go unnoticed,” she said.
What is happening here demonstrates what nurses can achieve when they do raise their voices. Canadian columnist, Marjorie Champagne, summed it up well when she wrote that men have the right to become angry while girls are taught to be gentle and caring.
“Thus, as they grow up, women forget to express their anger, and when they do, they are not taken seriously: they inevitably end up being called frustrated feminists,” she wrote. “While it is difficult to become the standard bearer of a cause, it is important to assume and maintain one’s position, especially when it begins to move. I, therefore, encourage all women to talk, to show their emotions whatever they are, but most of all, not to hold back their anger when two men can laugh in their face. Above all, do not be quiet.”