Jacelyn Wingerter became a registered nurse in January and has worked in a Saskatchewan ER ever since. At only 22, she says being on the front lines of a collapsing health care system has crushed her stamina and her spirit. This is her story.
—As told to Carly Lewis
When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in hospitals with my grandmother while she battled breast and pancreatic cancer. I was surrounded by amazing nurses who cared for her and comforted my family. I decided back then I wanted to help others just like they did. I wanted to be there for people on the worst days of their lives, and try to make them feel even the slightest bit better.
After four years in university, I became a registered nurse eight months ago and now work at a Saskatchewan hospital. I started during the pandemic, so I understood things would be intense. I never could have imagined how bad it would get, or how burnt out I would be at the age of 22.
Our emergency room is severely over capacity every day. The waiting room has space for about 20 people, but we typically have 40 to 50 patients waiting for care. Patients in the waiting room are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder while we’re still in a pandemic. There’s nowhere for them to go. Right now our average wait time is around eight hours, maybe longer.
In Canada, hospitals use the Canadian Triage and Acuity Scale, or CTAS, to triage patients. CTAS2 is the lowest someone can go before requiring a trauma bed immediately. It’s not uncommon for us to have 10 or more CTAS2 patients in the waiting room with chest pains experiencing possible heart attacks, people with broken bones, or level-two traumas—for example, people who’ve been in a car accident. On a recent shift it seemed as though triage was broadcasting a CTAS2 in the waiting room every five minutes. Most of those patients needed a bed with a monitor and one-on-one care. We couldn’t give it to them. They had to wait.
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We had a cancer patient the other day who was short of breath. They were not well, at all, and had to sit in the waiting room for five hours before getting a bed. Our admitted patients—the people who who made it out of the waiting room—are currently waiting upward of 100 hours in the ER to get a bed on their designated ward. Not a single bed is open. These are patients admitted for neurology, cardiology, internal medicine and oncology and who require a few days in the hospital. We don’t have room for them. When I went in on Sunday night there was a patient who had been stuck in the ER since the previous Wednesday.
Paramedics line the halls waiting to offload their patients. We’ve had EMS waiting more than 12 hours in our hallway with their patients before they can return to the streets. These issues have a domino effect—not only are emergency rooms scarily overcrowded, but they keep paramedics tied up at the hospital, unable to respond to emergency calls. We’ve also had STARS Air Ambulance stuck waiting in the hallway for a bed. If anyone had needed to be airlifted during that time, they would have had to wait.
We have 35 beds in our department, and 100 patients needing treatment. We’ve been treating patients in hallways. We recently had to squeeze two beds against our main desk. There’s no privacy, not even a curtain, and patients’ medical information can be overheard by anyone nearby. With the lights on and nurses running around, they can’t get any sleep. These patients come into our care to get better. How can they get better when they can’t even rest?
There was a bad car accident here recently. Two people died. I keep thinking about what we would have done if they’d needed to come in. I don’t know that we would have been able to keep them alive. We just didn’t have the hands, or the beds.
For the past three months we’ve been short-staffed every shift. It’s not because of Covid—it’s because nurses are burnt out, and many have left the profession. We should have at least 19 nurses on each shift, but sometimes we’ve been nine nurses short, six nurses short. When I left a shift last week we were five nurses short, so we closed down part of the ER for the night. I haven’t seen any improvement. Things continue to get worse. It’s been complete chaos from day one.
I feel defeated. I’m doing everything I can but it’s not enough. The number of patients is just too high. I leave every day feeling like there was something I missed or something I could have done better, wishing I could have helped more people, the way my grandmother’s nurses helped my family. I wish I’d had time to at least say hi and have a short conversation with my patients and show them I care, but I just run from room to room for my entire 12-hour shift. I have to start IVs, deliver medications, take patient vitals and update charts. I don’t have time to build rapport or provide a therapeutic relationship to my patients.
My co-workers and I try to take our breaks, but we usually end up skipping a few of them. Sometimes, when we do go on break, we get called back out. We just have to keep going. People need our help, and if we don’t help them no one else can.
Outside of work, I don’t really cope with it. I don’t recognize myself anymore. On my days off I sleep all the time, because I’m so tired and have no energy to do anything. I used to go to the gym five or six days a week. I played sports, I walked my dogs. Now I’m just too exhausted. My personality has become jaded. I’m carrying a lot of anger and frustration I wasn’t carrying before. It’s hard to sleep when I get home from a shift. I can’t stop thinking about everyone at the hospital.
I love my job and my co-workers, but I leave every shift feeling incredibly upset at the state of our health care system. Every single staff member is stretched to their limits. In the last two years, many nurses, including myself, have started taking antidepressants.
The government needs to realize our health care system isn’t collapsing—it has already collapsed. We need more funding and more beds. But even if we get more beds, where is the staff coming from? There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on recruiting and retaining staff. So many nurses are leaving the profession. Even eight months in, I don’t know how long I can continue to work like this. I have at least 30 years to go. At this rate it’s not sustainable. We will literally be killing ourselves if it continues like this.
Nurses are basically dying to be heard by our government. It’s been months of horror, and no change. I hope they hear us soon.