Exclusive by Shermain Bique-Charles for Observer Newsco
Several nurses employed at the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre (SLBMC) have taken concerns ranging from preferential treatment to personal safety to the media, after what they said are repeated attempts to get redress from the Ministry of Health.
A letter sent to Observer and endorsed by around a dozen nurses described the hospital as a “cult”, claiming only certain staff are allowed to do as they please.
They say the scales are not balanced and haven’t been so for a very long time.
These health care practitioners claim they are exposed to Covid-infected patients and are expected to provide nursing care without knowledge of a patient’s diagnosis. They allege that when a positive Covid test result is received, the favoured staff are asked to remain home and isolate while the remainder are required to care for the infected person.
Payment is another bone of contention for these nurses who claimed that some received payment for caring for Covid patients while others who cared for the same patients did not.
“Staff in SLBMC received large sums of money for the care of Covid patients, some were able to buy a house and vehicle while nurses were not paid, not even one cent.
“Doctors get paid to test patients for Covid while nurses who did the same procedure were not paid.
“Nurses nursed Covid patients and we spend the most time with the patient; others refused to go into the client’s/patient’s room and they were paid while the nurses weren’t paid,” they claimed.
The alleged discrimination even impacts their appearance, they claim.
“Nurses have to wear their hair a certain way, to prevent the spread of infection to the clients and themselves, but another category of staff who also does direct client/patient care is allowed to wear their hair how they want.
“Nurses can’t wear extensions or nail polish but another category of staff who does client/patient care is allowed to wear them and no one has an issue with it,” they wrote.
Uniform is another subject highlighted by the nurses, who asserted that professional nursing shoes cost $400 a pair which some staff can’t afford.
“Nurses are the least paid professionals in SLBMC and have the most duties on their job description. There is no pension plan for nurses in Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre. If you leave tomorrow, the only thing that is due to you is your vacation days and the salary you earned for your ending period.
“A nurse can resign with two weeks’ notice or quit on site,” the letter stated.
A large number of nurses are scheduled to leave the country within months and the management continues to do nothing about it, the nurses went on to claim in their very detailed letter.
“Some nurses have left already. Is the Ministry of Health aware of this? Nurses continue to leave and those who remain can’t get a proper salary.
“We continue to work tirelessly with minimal staff. We need help. We are tired and burned out.
“We don’t even show up for work sometimes because no one cares and we are slowly adopting a ‘don’t care’ culture as well,” they claimed.
Inadequate equipment and supplies were also mentioned and these medics say some patients have been in the hospital for over a month waiting for surgery amid a shortage of items to perform certain minor and even major operations.
Members of the public have often complained about a lack of adequate customer training for nurses, and that was also mentioned.
“We don’t remember how to smile and be courteous through our pain. We are mentally unstable. Our work environment is very stressful and even toxic sometimes. We also have chronic medical problems. How much longer can we endure this pain? We have mental issues.
“It’s difficult to think critically when you don’t have a comfortable place to live,” they wrote.
Where training is concerned, the nurses said they are engaged in online classes but are not paid for specialty or additional areas of study.
“If we take study leave away from work, some of our allowances is not paid so we can’t afford to go and study and still take care of our financial obligations to our children.
“Antigua nurses are too poor. We live from paycheck to paycheck. Nurses are poorly treated. We are told that if we are sick more than twice during a two-week pay period, we will be given a warning letter but if we are sick, we are sick,” the nurses said.
The laundry list of concerns also includes taking time off from work for bereavement. The nurses lamented that they are only entitled to three days off for close family.
“We see clients dying around us daily and we just wrap up, send them to the morgue and continue to do our duties and return to work the next day and the day after that. No one says anything.
“We also lose our family members and we are given three days for very close relatives – nothing for aunts, uncles, nieces or nephews.
“We are broken and we continue to be broken. How many pieces can we be broken into before something is done?” the letter asked.
The only way these nurses say they can continue to function in their role professionally is for strong leaders to stand in their corner.
“We need strong leaders to stand up for us. Nursing is losing its autonomy. If we speak out, we are placed in a corner and a bridle is placed on our tongue. Nurse leaders are not even given a seat at the table.
“We are being thrown in the dustbin of history while those who can and should stand up remain seated,” the nurses said.
They ended their letter by claiming work was having a devastating effect on family life.
“I watch my colleagues lose their husbands because of staffing. We work long, tiring shifts and when you are home, we are of no use to anyone – neither our husbands, partners, or our children.
“We should not, and I repeat nurses should not, be struggling to make a living. Nurses have to take two or three jobs to live a decent life.
“We have to stay extra hours at work or get a second and third job to feed our children,” they added.
Antigua and Barbuda is not the only country in the region at risk of losing nurses. Almost 1,800 nurses have left Jamaica over the last four years in search of higher income overseas, according to the Jamaica Observer. Problems have been exacerbated by an ongoing recruitment drive in the UK for nurses to help fill a shortage there.
Observer reached out to the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre for comment. A spokeswoman confirmed she had seen the letter and that an official response would be forthcoming. A Ministry of Health spokeswoman declined to comment.