Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Happy International Nurses Day!

NAJ Nurse of the Year for 2009 Anthonette Patterson flanked by first and second runners-up Prudence Grandison and Jillian Mason-Cleary

Jamaica, let’s have justice for our nurses

by Jean Lowrie-Chin
(Updated Observer column - first published May 2003)

They are the angels who usher us into this world and who smooth our journey from it. Today, on International Nurses Day we should find the time to show appreciation to our faithful nurses. Coming on the heels of Mother’s Day, adoptive parents like myself have even more reason to be grateful: were it not for the nurses at the University Hospital’s Newborn Special Care Unit and at a Children’s Home, my precious ones may not have survived.

Yet our nurses continue to be among the most overworked and underpaid public servants in our country. We tend to be insensitive towards those who serve best but talk less. Maybe one of our lobby groups could advocate for just compensation of our nurses, many of whom reluctantly leave Jamaica simply because they cannot make a decent living.

Nursing requires not only a compassionate spirit but indeed a competent individual who must measure up to international standards through the International Classification of Nursing Practice which has been computerised and integrated into multidisciplinary health information systems. Our nurses are therefore computer literate and some of the most articulate individuals I have ever met. Nurse practitioners are qualified to write prescriptions for their patients.

Under the rules of the ICN (International Council of Nursing) nurses practise five global values: Achievement, Partnership, Flexibility, Inclusiveness and Visionary Leadership. These values give a universal, humanistic approach to nursing and should place our nurses in a well-deserved position of respect. Nurses ‘keep the care and caring in health care’ through the established guideposts of technology, information and evidence, human resource planning, innovations in practice and advocacy.

This means that they are continuously involved in professional development, in stark contrast to some well paid individuals who proudly frame their ‘piece of paper’ and lord it over others for the rest of their arrogant lives. Now that performance related pay is the song of the day, who will have the nerve to demand that everyone should become accountable and prove that they are deserving of their fat salaries?

Let us look at the dismal salaries of our well-educated nurses. It is shocking to learn that a graduate nurse takes home $26,715 per month after taxes. After eight years of service, this nurse will be rewarded with a scanty increase to net $31,756 monthly. A specialist nurse, eg a midwife, after three years service, takes home $36,565. This is an absolute outrage. It is full time that the medical fraternity, who acknowledge that nurses are the backbone of our healthcare system, stand up for their worthy colleagues and demand greater parity in the salary scale.

Despite this shabby treatment, our dignified nurses continue to give first class care. How they emerge from crowded buses looking impeccable, is indeed amazing. While unenlightened middle class Jamaicans may not show due respect, ‘Nurse’ is still queen among the humble folk. Even criminals have been known to take on a humane attitude towards nurses. A nurse who changed out of her uniform before coming off duty, was held up by a gunman in Cross Roads. After her took her bag, he spied her white shoes and asked if she was a nurse. When she replied in the affirmative he apologised, returned the bag and ran off.

Another nurse told me of her bedside watch over a dying man who asked if he could have a little syrup, his favourite childhood drink. She said she checked around frantically and was able to give him a few refreshing sips before he smiled at her and breathed his last. Past President of the Nurses Association Rupertia Smith recalls singing to a young patient who lay in a coma after a serious motor vehicle accident. Day after day she sang to him until one day he finally opened his eyes and she was able to nurse him to full recovery.

I have to brag about my brilliant cousin Winnie Gopaulsingh Mair who gained a higher degree in nursing, then moved into the field of public health. She is one of the most innovative health advocates, creating special programmes that promote prevention and provide relief to patients who suffer from chronic conditions.

Whenever there is an illness in our house, I still hear the calm, reassuring voice of my late friend and former University Hospital Labour Ward Sister Sonja Phillipps (Yendi's beautiful mother). Regardless of the time of day or night, Sonja would listen patiently and give invaluable advice. Even as she struggled for years with a debilitating illness, she conducted antenatal sessions at her home, expertly preparing hundreds of mothers-to-be for healthy deliveries.

Having been associated with the Nurses Week programme, my respect for our nurses continues to grow. As they discuss plans and unhesitatingly volunteer for various tasks, we have come to appreciate their humility, grace and wisdom. It is no wonder that former NAJ President, Senator Syringa Marshall-Burnett was held in such high esteem as the Leader of our Upper House.

Jamaica’s own Mary Seacole is one of the most famous nurses in history, bravely caring for soldiers wounded in the 19th Century Crimean war, and later working side by side with Florence Nightingale. A grateful soldier recalled Mary Seacole’s ministrations: “Her never failing presence amongst the wounded after a battle made her beloved by the rank and file of the whole army.” Our nurses have continued in this great tradition, and we should ensure that their many sacrifices are justly rewarded. Happy International Nurses Day to these valiant souls!

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