Working lives: Being a nurse

Working lives: Being a nurse

In 2009, I left a well paid and enjoyable job in the charity sector to train as a nurse. My first degree had been a poorly thought out choice made by my 17 year old self.  It had left me with £15,000 of student debt and limited career prospects. The previous government had set up a fast track post-graduate nursing programme with no fees and a £600 per month bursary. It was successful in attracting people into healthcare. It was hard giving up my salary but I convinced myself I could live frugally for two years and at least I wouldn’t be adding to my student debt.Nursing isn’t like other university programmes. From the outset you are absorbed into the NHS workforce. 12 hour shifts, nights, weekends. You are expect to work as an employee but you are not employed. For those not on the bursary scheme you don’t receive any form of pay at the end of the month. You do this on top of the university contact time and assignments. It was tough, but I loved my training. I got to care for some amazing people.  The hospital becomes your home. The stress, tiredness and emotional burden that comes with looking after others creates a special bond between you and your colleagues. Two of my closest friends are people I trained alongside. It is hard to describe the intimacy of our friendship. We have changed in front of each other in small supply cupboards when there has been no staff room.  We have hugged each other through the tears and sadness that comes with facing illness and death. We have given each other the motivation to carry on through days when patients didn’t get a wash or sat in their faeces too long. Days when there were too many medications to prepare, dressings to change and catheters to insert. Days when there weren’t enough staff. Days when if the person in that bed had been your family member you would have stayed even later than the two free hours you put in extra already.

During those days I met my husband. Fresh out of university on his first medical job. As well as my training I was working extra hours as a health care assistant to pay my rent. Within a few months we decided to share a house with four others, three of which were healthcare workers. This seemed like the most financially viable option on our start out salaries.  Doctors work towards those Consultant salaries but for many it’s a long ladder.  A newly qualified doctor starts on £22,636. They give a lot and receive very little back.

By the time we got married I was a registered nurse and had undertaken further specialist training. I was working in the Intensive Care Unit, caring for the sickest patients in the hospital.  I was in my ideal job and progressing but the centralised medical trainee application system had not worked in my husbands favour.  On our wedding day he found out he had been given a GP trainee post, but it was 300 miles away from home.

Luckily I managed to secure a senior nurse job so we only spent a month apart before I joined him.  I finally began earning the same salary that I’d left 4 years previously. I’m not ungrateful but it had felt like a long wait, my job was rewarding but I didn’t really feel that my salary reflected the responsibility and specialist knowledge that the job required. I fell pregnant and my career went on hold.  After the two weeks of paternity leave my husband returned to work. Upon returning he worked 8 consecutive days totaling over 72 hours. He was owed annual leave but was not allowed to take it over that section of the rota. During the day shifts he would leave the house at 8am and return at 10.30pm. The NHS had cared for me so well during my pregnancy but in that week he returned to work, I was overcome with anger.  It had taken us so far from home and my husband away when we needed him the most.

Four months on I am starting to think about my return to work.  For many nurses this can be problematic.  Set rotas are often refused as flexibility is required to meet the needs of the service. Unfortunately, childcare is not so flexible and rarely caters for the early starts, late finishes and nights. The hospital I work in doesn’t have an on-site nursery. Unless there is family to help out it is pretty much impossible to juggle the two. I’ve been incredibly lucky to secure a desk based nursing post. This means normal(ish) hours which mostly fit the childcare hours. On the flip side it also means not maintaining the specialist clinical skills I developed and that are much need by the service. The loss of unsociable hours pay means when you balance the cost of childcare against income there is very little financial incentive for me to go back. But I will. Why? Because I am passionate about nursing.  Caring for people has given me a great sense of personal satisfaction.  I live in hope the NHS I’ve supported will one day care for me when I need it.  I once worked for Lewisham University hospital. I watched with pride when the local community took a stand and held hands around their hospital. They didn’t give up when things looked hopeless and they eventually won the battle to keep their A&E. It still amazes me what people can do when that critical mass is reached. That is why I’m not giving up, yet.

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