By Emily Troyer
I have been working in the emergency room throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and have seen a lot of heartbreak as we do everything we can to meet the needs of our community and carry our patients through this crisis.
But as heartbreaking as the impact of this terrible virus is, I am also heartbroken by the impact I have seen on nurses and other health care workers.
So many health care workers have left. Some left early out of fear for their safety due to the lack of adequate personal protective equipment like respirators, eye shields and gowns. But for the last year, we’ve lost countless colleagues who have decided they simply can’t continue under the current conditions. They are overworked and getting more burned out as executives drag their feet and only pursue short-term solutions to the staffing crisis.
That’s why I and other health care workers are part of the WA Safe + Healthy campaign calling on lawmakers to act by passing safe staffing standards that protect health care workers from dangerous patients loads, which will help us do our jobs safely and ensure better care for patients.
Short staffing of nurses and other health care workers started before the pandemic, with hospital executives budgeting for the bare minimum, but the pandemic has certainly put this issue into a pressure cooker, throwing our health care system into crisis.
I have stuck it out because I love emergency nursing. It’s full of chaos and, at times, a lot of sadness, but in the ER I often literally save lives. There’s no feeling like it in the world. I have mentored a lot of student nurses and new nurses. I always love to see fresh faces – it renews my spirit and wonder of what nursing can do and be.
Lately, those new nurses are leaving because they can’t take the stress of working so short-staffed, and I know the same is true for other health care workers. Nurses may go to travel nursing, where they can earn in a week what staff nurses earn in a month – and take a vacation between assignments. Others may go to a job that is safer and more manageable, like in a clinic or surgical center. Many simply retire. The point is, we’re losing them from the bedside, and I worry we’re in a downward spiral.
Health care workers have been asking hospital executives for well over a year to do something to help retain and recruit new staff – incentive pay, hazard pay, retention bonuses, ending mandatory overtime – but we’ve largely been ignored. I can’t blame my colleagues for making the choice to leave, but it does make me fear for the future of hospital care.
At this point I firmly believe that to recruit and retain nurses and other health care workers we need to address the staffing crisis by requiring safe staffing standards that will make our jobs manageable and keep patients safe. How can we recruit and retain when all we can promise is short staffing and burnout? I no longer have any confidence that individual hospital executives will step up and make the commitment and the investment to staff our hospitals safely.
We need the Legislature to act for the health and safety of everyone in Washington. Safe staffing standards that protect any one health care worker from dangerously high patient loads will ensure that nurses and other health care workers can do their jobs safely and that patients receive safe, quality care.
They will also give me and my colleagues hope.
I know it won’t happen overnight, but if the Legislature steps up and creates safe staffing standards, I truly believe that we’ll keep more health care workers. We’ll be able to keep those new nurses that I have seen bail out because it’s just too scary and stressful to work under the conditions the staffing crisis has fueled. I even believe that some of my colleagues who have left will come back to the bedside, where they will continue to work beside their colleagues to save lives.
Emily Troyer is an ER nurse in Spokane.
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