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‘Burnt out and pushed beyond their limits’: nurses struggle to work and care for own families

Click to play video: 'Nurses struggle to work and care for their own families' Nurses struggle to work and care for their own families
WATCH ABOVE: All families have been impacted by COVID-19, but many health-care workers say they are exhausted caring for so many sick patients and it's taking a toll on their own families. Kendra Slugoski reports – Sep 28, 2021

Nancy Halupa has always wanted to be a nurse. To her, it’s a calling.

“I’m nothing if I’m not a nurse,” said Halupa, from her home in Toronto, Ont. “I’ve been a nurse in my head since I was six years old. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

But after 23 years at bedsides, the emergency room nurse said the job is getting to be too much.

She’s stressed, tired and angry.

“We just can’t cope anymore in the emergency department. It’s hard. The turnover and staffing there is hard.”

Halupa said the physical demands of the job aren’t the problem — it’s the emotional burden.

There are more patients and they are coming in sicker.

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“It’s not just COVID patients,” stressed Halupa. “Nursing has been short-staffed for years. COVID brought everything to the surface, but there’s been a chronic nursing shortage since I started nursing 23 years ago.

“People are coming in significantly sicker. I’m an emerge nurse so there’s a high number of overdoses we get now.”

By the time Halupa ends her 12-hour night shift, she has little left to care for her own family.

“You feel like a terrible mother a lot of the times because you don’t have the energy to go to a soccer game or the energy to deal with teenage problems,” she said.

“Your husband wants to go out for dinner — and I don’t want to go out in public because I don’t want people I know to see me because I don’t want to talk about work.”

Halupa said she had cut down her shifts during the week but still needs extra time at home to decompress.

She has also been trying to care for her aging parents and still fears she could pass COVID-19 to them and make them sick.

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“I don’t have much left for anyone else. I definitely don’t have anything left for myself.”

Read more: Burnt-out health-care workers prepare to take on Alberta’s COVID-19 patients

Nurses and hospital workers across the country are feeling the same drain.

The BC Nurses’ Union said its members are being pushed beyond their limits and more nurses are leaving the profession.

It’s the same in Ontario.

Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), said nurses are mentally and physically exhausted.

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McKenna said COVID-19 illness has pushed the “severe vacancy rate” to the forefront.

“What we’re hearing from the ground is that nurses are leaving.”

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Pre-pandemic, McKenna said nurses were surveyed and many committed to staying on the job longer than the average retirement age, but that’s not the case anymore.

The ONA predicts hundreds of vacancies in larger hospitals and up to 22 per cent vacancies in smaller health-care settings.

“That is horrendous at the best of times,” said McKenna, “and this certainly isn’t the time to be experiencing a crisis and shortage of nurses.”

The ONA doesn’t expect things to get better for nurses anytime soon.

“It will be a long rebuild. There’s a lot of work to do here in Ontario in order to change what’s happening now,” said McKenna.

Halupa, a mother of two, said she still has a little bit to give on the front lines. The support of her family and her husband “picking up a lot of the slack” has kept her going.

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Her coworkers have also been a source strength over the past 20 months.

“We’ve spent more time together than I have with my own family,” said Halupa.

But Halupa said isn’t sure how much longer she can keep going and feels like she is being forced into early retirement.

“Every single province… has let this get this far, it’s almost irreparable at this point. Yeah, money would be great, but I don’t know any nurse that willingly wants to work full-time anymore.

“They’ve taken away our passion and our desire to do this job.”

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