by Jodi Bryant and Peter de Graaf
Jill Mortimer has nurses approach her in tears and, often, she just wants to cry with them.
Instead, she ducks off to the toilet where she weeps then pulls herself together to head back into the Whangārei Hospital's hectic emergency department.
"I often save my tears until I get home but unfortunately it does happen," said Mortimer, New Zealand Nursing Organisation (NZNO) delegate and emergency department clinical nurse co-ordinator. "It's a quick trip to the loo, get it under control and go back."
Mortimer was speaking at yesterday's nursing strike in Whangārei. About 1400 Northland District Health Board nurses were among 30,000 NZNO members across the country who stopped work for eight hours to demand better pay and conditions.
With 20 years in the profession, Mortimer offered a glimpse into a common day in the emergency department.
"You go to work on a shift - you don't want to because you know it's going to be overwhelming and soon as you arrive, it's all on.
"One nurse might be assigned five patients; one needs life-saving treatment, which becomes the priority, two will be in significant and severe pain but you can't get to them. There will be a kid with a fever who needs (medication) to bring the fever down and a dementia patient needing the toilet and it is unsafe to get up unassisted.
"They end up wetting the bed and we absolutely hate that - not only because it's disgusting but because it's about their dignity. Also, it puts them at risk of skin damage.
"If you lose a patient, of course, you carry on. This has a significant effect but you have to move onto the next patient when you feel you haven't had the time to address that properly. That's just soul-destroying and really affects your psyche.
"How do you go home from that? You go home just broken and there's no time to care for yourself; You finish your shift at 11pm, have a handover, reflect on the drive home, make yourself a cup of coffee and sit down and reflect some more.
"Then you might flick on the telly to wind down and you go to bed but you can't go to sleep because you're dwelling on what you should have done for that patient.
"Then you go back and do it all again. As for your family, you've just got nothing left. You're just too damn exhausted."
The eight-hour nurses' strike affected all public hospitals and DHB facilities around New Zealand and involved nurses, midwives and hospital assistants. Health boards have offered a $4000 lump-sum payment following an earlier offer of a 1.4 per cent pay rise. The nurses' union, in contrast, wants a 17 per cent pay rise.
Mortimer said nurses around the country were beyond knowing what else to do.
"I've been here long enough to know this has escalated. My passion is to look after nurses because they need looking after so they can look after people. They are amazing people and I haven't been able to give that support to my team," she said, breaking down in tears.
"I go to work now afraid. We're afraid of some of the patients who assault us because we're the face of health in the DHBs. We get blamed for everything so patients attack us and we're afraid for the patients and what it's doing to us. We're tired and afraid of making mistakes. Nurses fear they are too broken to recover."
In Kawakawa, about 20 nurses picketed on the main road through town, chanting, ''Be fair to those who care'' and ''What do we need? More nurses!''.
Kawakawa nurse Mary Clark (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Manu) said she and her colleagues did a lot that went beyond the call of duty.
''We're not just nurses, we're also social workers, we're police, we're doctors, we're child minders. It's not safe, not for patients or for us.''
Adding to the strain, patients were getting sicker and older. ''I'm tired, I'm getting to the stage where I don't enjoy my job. We try our hardest but I feel like I'm not doing the nursing job I want to do. It's just hard and it's getting harder.''
Clark said she qualified at Kawakawa in 2005, went to Australia in 2007, and came home in 2015.
Despite her extra experience her pay in New Zealand was not even close to her last pay in Australia, she said.
Leanna Duncan, of Kapiro, is new at Bay of Islands Hospital but has had 30 years' nursing experience.
''People do this job because they care, but I come home and just feel like I haven't done a good job because there aren't enough staff.
"You know what you're expected to do but you just can't get through that workload. There's more expectations, there's more to do, the patients are heavier, their acuity is higher."
NZNO lead advocate David Wait said pay rates did not attract or keep people in the profession while staffing levels would "stretch them to breaking point, putting them and their patients at risk".