An emergency department nurse in Letterkenny hospital has told of how she worked an extra 16 hours over three shifts this week because there was nobody to replace her.
Hospital overcrowding hit record highs this week, with 931 people waiting on trolleys on Tuesday, falling to 535 people by Friday.
Sarah Maher told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne that she had been rostered to work 8am to 4pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. She finished at 9pm on Tuesday and Thursday and at 10pm on Wednesday.
“When it comes to the end of shift, I can't just go. If I hadn't stayed until 10pm on Wednesday night there was nobody available to triage.”
There were a mixture of reasons for this issue, she said. Hospitals were very short-staffed with sick leave rates very high at the moment. “On top of that there is the skill mix issue to consider – certain nurses have certain clinical skills and we require a set number of those nurses on any given shift. We've had a huge influx of staff in recent years, but we've struggled to train those staff in the time frames we would normally do it.
“It's heartbreaking every day, going in knowing that you face up to 30 patients plus any additional patients waiting to be seen – it is not unusual to walk in and find 40 to 50 patients in the department.
“There are only 12 cubicles – you are walking into an area full of patients sitting on chairs, in wheelchairs, standing, sitting on the floor at times – trying to determine who can be moved for the next emergency that comes through the door because you have nowhere to put them. It is a shuffling game.”
Ms Maher said she had not gone into nursing to work in crisis management. Nurses wanted to provide the best level of care for every patient, but they were “constantly running from pillar to post.”
The emergency nurse admitted that every day she asks herself “can I continue to do this?”
There was an exodus of staff from the work which meant the departure of “a phenomenal level of experience”. New recruits did not have the same level of skill and experience and that was having the biggest impact, she said.
Ms Maher said she had to mentally prepare every day before going into work. “You know that you are going into work to face people that are upset and angry, understandably and rightly so.
“We are the face that they see and we bear the brunt of it. They are right, it is unsafe and inhumane.”
On the same programme the president of nursing union INMO, Karen McGowan, an advanced nurse practitioner in the emergency department at Beaumont hospital in Dublin, said this was what staff were enduring every day.
“It is absolutely impossible to provide safe care especially with all the transmissible viruses going around. Patients are on top of each other. There are loads of knock on effects in terms of recovery.
“We do what we do for the patients, we gear up before every shift. We are a close-knit unit – emergency nurses, we support each other.”