As a PA, I’ve worked in some of the city’s busiest emergency departments. While they differ in practice styles, patient population, and architecture, they all have one thing in common: the nurses are overworked. As thousands of them go on strike and thousands more threaten to do the same, it should come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed their plight.
I have seen NYC RNs be spit on and cursed at. I have never seen one take a proper lunch break. I have seen them told to put away their coffee from the charting station, and I have seen them berated for delayed medications after they’ve spent an hour in a code. Though there are many brutal careers that take a physical and mental toll, few do so in such a traumatic combination as urban frontline medicine does. Nurses have always known this and have towed the line with strength, dignity, and compassion (and sips of coffee snuck out of desk drawers). However, most in New York are currently being repeatedly asked to do more with less in unprecedented and unacceptable ways. For example, many are regularly doubling California’s state-mandated safety ratios (which require an ER nurse with an ICU hold be limited at 1:2 or a step-down unit cap at 1:4). What’s more, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that medical professionals in New York are eight times more likely to be assaulted than private sector workers.
But the most brutal betrayal of New York nurses lies in the way I can only imagine they’ve been made to feel disposable amidst this suffering. In 2020, as the pandemic ravaged the city, beleaguered and horrified RNs trekked on through deplorable conditions while NYC hospital executives denied them cost-of-living increases and improved benefits. Nightly clapping and “heroes work here” signs are not enough to atone for these insults, especially as administrators simultaneously received an average bonus of around $273,000. Imagine what might be possible if hospitals invested in the health and well-being of their current staff (and I’m not talking about pizza parties and branded badge lanyards) instead of claiming “shortages” and spending massive amounts of money to hire traveling nurses (many of whom, ironically, live locally but work locums for the benefits).
All this has culminated in a 26 percent decrease in self-reported mental health among nurses, with two-thirds “considering leaving” the profession in the next two years, according to a recent survey by ShiftMed. Of those who stay, many are contemplating leaving the bedside, have sought trauma counseling for COVID-related PTSD, or are joining support and education groups such as those offered for medical professionals through the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care.
It should come as no surprise that New York nurses feel they can no longer carry the weight of the hospital on their backs. While unions consider a last-ditch effort strike to ensure patient safety and promote career longevity, we clinicians must support them wholeheartedly. We cannot possibly survive without nurses, and neither can our patients.
Molly M. Murray is a physician assistant.