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In the midst of a nursing crisis, a nurse reveals what it’s really like to work for the NHS

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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New figures show that one in 10 nurses in England leave the NHS every year. Here, a critical care nurse working in London reveals what it’s really like to be a part of our health service right now.

It would be fair to say the NHS is currently in the midst of a nursing crisis. Job applications from EU nurses – who are crucial to the running of the NHS – have dropped a massive 96% since the Brexit vote, while more UK nurses and midwives are now leaving the profession than joining it. 

But just how accurate is the stereotype that nurses in the NHS are underpaid and overworked? Here Megan Ingram, a 25-year-old critical care nurse working at the Royal Free Trust in London, defends the profession she loves and explains why nursing is still a dream job for many – despite the impact of Brexit and funding cuts.

“I went into nursing straight after college and have been working in the NHS for four years now. I honestly can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Every day is different and you never really know who you’re going to meet, or what you’re going to see, on each shift.

You’re able to move into different areas while working as a nurse, so you never get bored. I’ve worked in community nursing and on a ward, and I’m currently working in intensive care, so it’s really diverse and can chop and change at any time. I didn’t have any experience in intensive care before I started but all of my skills are transferable, so I went to the interview and got the job. You don’t get those kind of opportunities in many careers.

Plus, I’ve learnt so much from my patients. My last role was in elderly care: old people are so wise and funny, and they have so many stories to share. I learn about so many different illnesses as well – we’re never going to know everything as nurses, so someone could walk in the door with a rare disease and educate us all about it. They’re the ones who are living with it, and their knowledge allows us to share our skills and expand on that.

nhs nurse megan

Megan Ingram, a 25-year-old critical care nurse

For example, I worked with a little boy who had an extremely rare skin condition that no one had ever heard of before. But his mum had done loads of research so she was educating us, and then we were going off and doing more research, so between us all we were able to help him a bit.

It can be daunting when that happens, but we’d be silly to sit here and say we know everything. As long as you’re open-minded and honest with your patients, and ask if you don’t know something, it can be a really rewarding learning experience.

That little boy’s story always sticks with me. When I first started working with his mum he was still a baby, and as I began finding out about the skin condition and all the problems that came with it, his mum was extremely low. She was struggling to cope, not only with the diagnosis of her son, but also a number of problems it was causing within her family.

In the end, through working with her closely and giving her the confidence to put his condition to one side and concentrate on being a mum, I left that job feeling like she was in a much better place and, because of that, her little boy was having a better experience. It is a long-term skin condition for him, but from where they started to where they are now is a huge, huge change for the positive.

"It can be daunting when we don't know everything about a patient's condition"

"It can be daunting when we don't know everything about a patient's condition"

Most nurses have stories like that of patients they’ve worked with. The job is about so much more than the money – and no nurse goes into it for the money. It’s no secret we get paid terribly and I can probably speak for a lot of my colleagues when I say that if we think about it too much, it can get very depressing.

It’s hard because there can be a lot of pressure, and I know I can earn more money by doing extra shifts, so I have to be strict with myself or I’ll end up having no life. If I’m working flat out and doing a mixture of 12-hour night shifts, day shifts and overtime, it’s difficult to switch off. It can make planning things with friends and family quite difficult – one of my friends is getting married and wants to go bridesmaid shopping but we don’t have any free weekends together until November. Emotionally though, I’m quite good; I go to the gym, and I try to maintain a good work-life balance. I might think about work, but I don’t let it affect me.

I know a lot of people think nurses are just overworked and underpaid, and while I can definitely empathise with that statement, I wouldn’t completely agree with it. There are loads of good aspects to nursing, so I don’t think we should be too harsh on the career itself. It can be really fun and you’re working on a big team of doctors, nurses, physios and all kinds of people from all walks of life, as well as your patients and their relatives. It offers such an unusual mix of people that you see every day, compared to, say, someone working in an office.

The profession has stagnated a bit, and we can’t expect any more in terms of pay or better hours. We have to like it or lump it. And I think people know that nurses are generally nice people and we’re not just going to walk out on our patients and go on strike, so things don’t necessarily change, which puts people off becoming a nurse.

Plus, now that nursing bursaries have been cut we’ll see fewer people applying to enter the profession. No one in my family ever went to university and I always thought of it as an expensive place that would get me into loads of debt, so I didn’t consider it until I learned about the bursary and funded tuition fees. Being a student nurse is hard because everyone on the ward relies heavily on them; it’s like slave labour without being paid. So to take away their monthly bursary is just terrible.

"The job is about so much more than the money"

"The job is about so much more than the money"

We rely heavily on nurses from the EU too, but the percentage of nurses applying to work here has plummeted. Brexit is a huge part of that, and if I was an EU nurse I’d be put off from applying too. Some of the EU nurses I’ve met who have moved here said they don’t feel supported, and word of mouth gets around.

I  don’t want them to be put off, as I’ve met some amazing nurses from the EU. They’re so clever and knowledgeable. English isn’t even their first language and yet they’re able to look after a critically ill patient and tell me everything I need to know about them. 

And as much as the NHS has been slated recently, I’m so proud to work here. We provide some of the best healthcare in the world and it’s free, so no matter what anyone says, it’s amazing in terms of the care and treatment provided.

Being a nurse is very challenging and it’s certainly not a career for someone who wants an easy ride. But if someone did want to become a nurse, I would tell them not to be put off by the things that are said, because they’ll see otherwise when they start doing it. It’s such a different, challenging and exciting job and I don’t think we should keep putting it down.”

Images: Rex Features / iStock

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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