Veteran nurse reveals horror stories behind the scenes of Aussie hospital

The nurse described the conditions at the private hospital as 'appalling'.

A former nurse who worked for years at what she described as a "dangerously under-resourced" private hospital, where staff were so "severely overworked" it "jeopardised patient care", has said she'd "never in a million years go back".

NSW woman Tracy Birch, 58, has revealed that after working at St Vincent's private hospital in Lismore "her mental health was so affected" that she left the industry altogether last year, after five years at the facility and a decade in other nursing roles.

Birch said she felt compelled to speak out and share her own experience following Yahoo's exclusive report on allegations of a "toxic" workplace culture at St Vincent's.

a generic nurse photo
The nurse, not pictured, claims St Vincent's fostered a 'toxic' work environment. Source: Getty stock image/ Google.

Former nurse blows whistle on 'toxic workplace environment'

Last week, it emerged that nurses at the hospital were told by the facility's recently appointed CEO they were "excessively overpaid" in an email seen by Yahoo, resulting in a proposed pay rise being scrapped.

Staff had claimed they were routinely overworked and subjected to questionable working conditions and, in collaboration with the NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association (NSWNMA), pushed for a 7 per cent pay rise. Following negotiations with the hospital nurses were prepared to instead accept a 4 per cent rise, before Alan Cooper stepped into the CEO role and revised the offer down to 2 per cent, saying it was "fairer financially and far better for nurses professionally".

Scrapped pay rise 'a disgrace', says former nurse

Birch, who lives in the Lismore area, said during her time at the hospital, she was previously refused a raise. She claimed she witnessed "appalling" levels of staff shortages, and said the management at the "old and unclean" hospital lacked a "genuine compassion" for staff.

The former nurse said that although it didn't come as a surprise, she thought it was "disgraceful" that current employees were refused a salary increase, particularly given the "fully-staffed" executive department, where she claimed "even the assistants have assistants".

"It's disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful," Birch told Yahoo News Australia. "The entire five years were just horrible, very toxic. I couldn't believe it. In my first year alone I saw 10 staff leave."

Alan Cooper's email to nurses.
St Vincent's Lismore CEO Alan Cooper's email to nurses where he branded them overpaid and said that lower pay will be "fairer and better for you professionally". Source: Supplied.

Recalling that even the basic of leave requests were regularly rejected by the hospital, Birch said it was a tipping point for her when a colleague was refused time off to care for her suicidal son.

"One of the other poor staff members wanted to have the weekend off, because her son was suicidal, and she wanted to be at home and they said 'no, you have to be rostered on to do your shift'. I said 'I'll do the shift for her — that's no problem', but I wasn't allowed," Birch claimed.

"l let them know that they had no compassion and bloody hell, I ended up in HR. They just don't care about their staff."

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Nurse claims she was told to refuse care for flood victim

In another anecdote, Birch claimed that during Lismore's devastating floods, staff were told to refuse requests for blankets from "shivering boaties" conducting rescue missions.

"When the floods were on, I was down at the main switch and we had a lot of 'boaties' going up and down the road, evacuating people from their homes," she said. "I had one guy come in and he said, 'can I have a wheelchair, I've got this person, just I need to get them off the boat and they can't walk'.

"So I gave them a wheelchair and then the boatie brought this person into the hospital. They were suffering with hypothermia. I rang up my manager and said, 'can I get some towels and blankets down here please? The boaties have just dropped off this very large person'.

Rescuers on boats during Lismore's floods.
Tracy Birch claimed she was directed by her manager to refuse blankets to a patient suffering hypothermia during the Lismore floods. Source: AAP.

"They were completely soaking wet. But I was told 'we're not in the emergency department — we shouldn't be having any of these people'. I eventually organised an ambulance to come, but I got in big trouble for that."

Birch also echoed much of the sentiment nurses previously claimed: long hours, unpaid overtime, forced leave, a toxic work environment and a general lack of support.

"They've even cut the cleaning staff," she added.

Claims made against St Vincent's come as hospitals around the country face similar criticisms for their working culture and lack off staff.

Nursing shortage about to 'significantly worsen'

In fact, new data released this week suggested the nation's nursing shortage is actually about to "significantly worsen" — with up to one in four revealing they're considering leaving the industry altogether within two to five years.

The survey — the most comprehensive study of primary health care nurses in the country — was conducted by The Australian Primary Health Care Nurse’s Association’s (APNA), and also found the vast majority (74 per cent) of nursing staff felt both exhausted and stressed while at work.

Nearly three quarters (72 per cent ) said they felt burnt out at work, and two thirds (66 per cent ) said they had both an excessive workload and regularly worked overtime.

Birch said she "wasn't surprised one bit" by the data, and that many of the nurses she's in contact with have plans to soon leave the industry.

"It's a shame though, we get a lot of feedback forms submitted through the hospital and all of them, they compliment the nursing care and staff — they're always getting complimented".

St Vincent's in Lismore has been contacted for comment.

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