NSW Central Coast nurses fear pandemic pressures jeopardizing staff and patient safety

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Nurse Michelle Cashman is still in disbelief as she recounts her manager’s recent desperation for the staff.

She was begged to work an extra shift at a public hospital in NSW’s central coast despite having to babysit her young grandchildren aged three and 20 months.

“Bring them with you…I have a Nintendo,” replied the 40-plus-year-old nurse.

“I’ve seen nurses collapse,” said Kerrie McNulty, a nurse at Gosford Hospital.

“It’s the fear and anxiety you have,” she said, especially when placed in unfamiliar and understaffed wards.

Her colleague Meg Pendrick said the nurses were “trying to do everything” and it showed.

“I look around and all of a sudden, instead of having eight on the floor, I have four,” she said of the squad.

“We make mistakes”

The Central Coast, just north of Sydney, is one of NSW’s fastest growing areas and nurses say local hospitals were already stretched thin before the pandemic hit.

The four nurses who sat down with the ABC, representing the local branch of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, have a collective nursing experience of around a century.

All agree that they have never faced anything like this and said there is no end in sight.

Ambulance patients may be forced to wait hours outside the emergency department at Gosford Hospital.(Provided: Australian Association of Paramedics)

Emergency department nurse Kelly Falconer said the past six months had been the worst.

“There are patients everywhere,” she said.

“It’s depressing and exhausting.”

The group says patients are frequently turned away from emergency departments due to chronic staff shortages and overwhelming caseloads.

“It’s pretty devastating to tell patients who are in pain and need help that you’re going to be sitting here for 10 hours before seeing a doctor,” Ms Falconer said.

A hand on a hospital blanket.
Nurses say there are simply not enough staff to provide quality inpatient care. (Flickr: Tim Samoff)

She openly admitted that “patient care is compromised daily.”

They said even basic personal care like teeth cleaning is virtually non-existent unless patients can do it themselves.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” Ms Pendrick said.

“We are understaffed, we are exhausted and no one is listening to us.”

Health admits nursing shortage

Scott McLachlan, director of the Central Coast Local Health District (CCLHD), acknowledged that the region is facing a shortage of about 200 nurses.

He said that was equivalent to 8% of the total nursing workforce and he would like to see that vacancy rate reduced to “about 3 or 5%”.

A man with short hair wearing glasses and a gray blazer looks seriously at the camera.
CCLHD CEO Scott McLachlan agrees that the past few months have been very difficult. (ABC Western Plains: Shannon Corvo)

He agreed that “the system was under pressure”, but insisted that it still had the capacity to expand if needed, and said efforts were continually being made to ease the burden in the sector.

This included recruiting 100 new casual nurses over the next few weeks as well as continued support from the region’s private hospital sector.

“I take my hat off to their extraordinary work. We need [them] to take a break.”

The nurses said the “biggest slap in the face” was repeated denials from politicians and bureaucrats that the system was facing.

“Our communities are hurting and we’re doing the best we can, and they keep telling us we’re getting by,” Ms Pendrick said.

“There is no way out.

Nurses say they’ve had enough

For many, a career in nursing has become too heavy and they are leaving or reducing their hours.

“We have staff going left, right and center. They move to different pastures,” Ms Falconer said.

For example, one of their colleagues had started a new career in forensic medicine, while another had left part-time to work in the hotel industry.

“What’s wrong with our system when we have experienced nurses moving towards a lighter sense of work? We need those nursing nurses,” she said.

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