Working as a paediatric nurse in accident and emergency was my wife’s dream job. A week after she qualified, she was offered a position in one of the largest emergency departments in the country. I’d never seen her so happy; I’d never seen anyone that excited about work. And I never thought I’d be the one to make her give it all up.
I drove my wife to the hospital to collect her first uniform. I’ll never forget how proudly she ironed it when she got home. We visited her parents a week later and her grandfather gave her a fob watch and made her pose for a photo in her uniform. Her mother told us that for his remaining years he would proudly point to it whenever he had guests and say: “That’s my granddaughter, the nurse.”
My wife loved her job. Every time she got in the car after a shift she would tell me about her day. She told me whenever she did anything new, like applying her first bandage, giving her first injection or treating a child with a head injury. We were in town once and a woman came up to us and hugged her in the street. Apparently her daughter, whom my wife had treated, was always talking about her and now wanted to be a nurse. I was dumbfounded and a little jealous.
My wife’s first real test came a few months in. There had been a road traffic collision involving a child. It had been touch and go but they saved the child’s life. She cried as she told me and then sat in silence. I couldn’t imagine working under that much pressure. I smiled at her through my own tears and told her that someone’s child was alive today because of her and that she was a superhero.
Not all children were that lucky and I soon realised it was my job to provide emotional support after a difficult shift. Whenever children died she had to take their bodies to the morgue and try to console their inconsolable parents. That she could keep her head when all around her were losing theirs and not cry until she saw me gave me immense respect for her.
But six years later I sat her down with a cup of tea and told her I couldn’t stand it any more: she had to quit her job. She looked me straight in the eye and burst into tears.
I knew her department would suffer if she left, but for the past few years I had watched the physical and emotional pressures of the job destroy her. The passionate young nurse had been replaced with an exhausted, anxious woman I no longer recognised.
Being screamed at by a long line of patients during her 13-hour shift was the norm. Her stories now involved being spat at or having furniture thrown at her. I got angry. I questioned whether she was letting people walk all over her and our conversations became more heated. We were regularly arguing about her job and it was affecting our relationship. Meanwhile, more staff were calling in sick with stress and many of her friends were leaving and being replaced with newly qualified nurses.
One day, after seeing another negative story about NHS waiting times in the media, she told me something that broke my heart. She no longer told anyone she worked in A&E because she was worried about what they might say. What had that place done to my wife? The young woman who once proudly ironed her uniform was now scared to tell people what she did for a living.
I convinced her to quit because her sense of duty to the NHS, her patients and her colleagues wouldn’t allow her to do it. It was selfish of me but I couldn’t watch her destroy herself for other people, especially when those people were becoming hostile and ungrateful. She knew I was right and I wore her down. So she left, and one of the largest children’s emergency departments in the country lost another experienced, highly regarded and skilled nurse.
I read with horror recently that more than 33,000 nurses left the NHS last year. I knew that my wife was one of them and a wave of guilt rushed over me. But I could see how much happier and healthier she was and realised it was worth it and not my fault. The NHS is in crisis and something has to change. Until it does, pray you don’t have to take your child to A&E.
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