Nurse quits Saint John hospital in frustration and takes up long-haul trucking

Nurse quits Saint John hospital in frustration and takes up long-haul trucking-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Former licensed practical nurse Leah Gorham is seen driving an 18-wheeler near Enfield, N.S. (Submitted by Leah Gorham)

At 42, Leah Gorham has decided to trade in her stethoscope for life in the cab of an 18-wheeler because she saw no happy future for herself as a licensed practical nurse.

Speaking en route to Indiana and then South Carolina, Gorham said she will miss the friends she made in New Brunswick health care as well as the thrill of helping people recover from operations. But she’s feeling good about her decision to hit the road.

“This thing’s really long,” Gorham said of her truck as she passed through a raging snowstorm this week. “It’s hard to turn, and it’s heavy, but not only am I able to see the monetary value, I’m seeing the world.”

Over a 12-year span, Gorham worked in neurosurgery and then general surgery. She now works for a Dartmouth, N.S., transportation company and was hauling tires when CBC spoke with her on Tuesday.

Leah Gorham-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Gorham says understaffing, violent patients, the stress of COVID-19 and a lack of career development drove her from her job at the Saint John Regional Hospital. (Submitted by Leah Gorham)

She said the Saint John Regional Hospital has always struggled with understaffing, but the pandemic made everything worse, and morale has taken a beating.

“A lot of the nurses are getting burned out. They’re crying every day; they’re crying in the bathroom. The people I know who are tough as nails, they just can’t take it anymore.”

Incident of patient assault

Gorham said it’s having an impact on employee safety.

Nurses have become so over-stretched, she said, it’s hard to find the time or energy to talk to each other about anything beyond what is urgent and immediate.

She thinks this contributed to the worst patient assault of her career.

Gorham decided to be a truck driver-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Gorham chose life behind the wheel of a transport truck over her job at the Saint John Regional Hospital. (Submitted by Leah Gorham)

“We had so many patients apiece, we really couldn’t communicate what was going on in the unit,” said Gorham, describing what happened early one morning last August.

Gorham said a male patient whipped her in the face with his catheter bag, then pinned her up against the wall and tried to strangle her with his hands.

She said she later learned that he had shown signs overnight of becoming confused and aggressive, but nobody had had a chance to tell her that when she entered his room around six o’clock in the morning.

“I’ve been assaulted in the hospital more than a few times, but this time it was an attack that I couldn’t get away from, and that’s what scared me most.”

‘I wanted to be a nurse’

Despite everything, Gorham said, she wanted to stay in health care and had dreams of becoming a registered nurse. She said she applied multiple times to the bridging programs at the University of New Brunswick.

Saint John Regional Hospital-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Gorham says the Saint John Regional Hospital has always struggled with understaffing, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it worse. (Wikipedia)

The programs are highly competitive. Those who are accepted take six online courses that prepare them to enter Year 3 of a four-year bachelor of nursing degree.

“I wanted to be a nurse for the rest of my life,” Gorham said. “I applied at least three times and was flat-out rejected and honestly, I had no idea why.”

Feeling that her future was bleak, with no hope for professional growth, she took a hard look at trucking.

Her boyfriend was a trucker and with his encouragement and support, Gorham took a 12-week truck-driving course at a cost of about $10,000 and obtained her Class 1 transport truck licence.

She’s been doing the job since early January and so far, she’s loving it.

“I really miss working with the girls,” she said. “We really formed a strong relationship and a huge trust and I loved looking after people.

“But I was so frustrated with not getting ahead in nursing, I feel like this is a better fit for me right now.”

Retention a national problem

The New Brunswick Nurses Union says the province has 1,000 registered nurse vacancies between the regional health authorities and the province’s nursing homes.

The union said there’s also a shortage of some 300 licensed practical nurses.

Meanwhile, the Omicron variant has forced hundreds of working health-care professionals to stay off the job.

On Jan. 3, Public Health reported 571 health-care staff were isolating at home.

The Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) says the nursing gaps making headlines across the country appear to be a problem of retention, not supply.

While nursing seats at Canadian institutions were cut back in the early 2000s, they started to rebound after the SARS epidemic hammered Toronto hospitals in 2003.

New Brunswick's former auditor general-Milenio Stadium-Canada
New Brunswick’s former auditor general, Kim Adair-MacPherson, criticized the province for failing to build on the number of nursing graduates, despite huge investment in nursing schools. (Catherine Harrop/CBC News file photo)

Prior to that outbreak, which caused 44 deaths, Canada was graduating about 5,000 registered nurses per year.

That has more than doubled. According to data gathered by the schools of nursing, Canada has been graduating more than 12,000 RNs annually over the past seven years.

“Demand to get into nursing is sky-high,” said Cynthia Baker, executive director of CASN.

“We don’t think we have a shortage of graduates,” she said. “But nurses are leaving in droves right now.”

New Brunswick an outlier

Baker said the one exception to national growth in nursing education seems to be New Brunswick.

According to the association’s findings, New Brunswick graduated 268 RNs in 2015, 260 in 2016, 202 in 2017, 144 in 2018 and 148 in 2020.

That downward trend was flagged a few years ago by former auditor general Kim Adair-MacPherson. In 2019, she issued a report criticizing the provincial government for failing to effectively prepare for the looming nurse shortage.

Adair-MacPherson noted that a program put in place in 2005 — which gave the University of Moncton and University of New Brunswick close to $100 million to create more seats in their nursing programs — was unsuccessful.

She said the province failed to add a single seat.


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