Montreal·Video

There's a nursing shortage in Quebec. Here's why one nurse quit and another is on the brink

Two nurses, one just entering the field, and the other who left due to harsh conditions, weigh in on why the public system is losing employees so rapidly.

Union says government needs to do more to improve conditions in the public sector

In and out of the system: Quebec nurses struggling to keep up with demands

3 months ago
3:57
Two nurses, one just entering the field, and the other who left due to harsh conditions, weigh in on why the public system is losing employees so rapidly. 3:57

After seven years as a registered nurse, Jennifer Philogène's experience working in an understaffed hospital during the pandemic left her traumatized and looking for a way out. 

She tried to push through for a year, but ended up leaving her post as an ICU nurse in Montreal in 2020 to become a clinical instructor. 

"At some point I was telling myself that if I wanted to take good care of my patients, that I had to take care of myself, because I was exhausted." 

Quebec Premier François Legault said this week that the public sector is missing about 4,000 nurses.

The shortage has led to a number of emergency rooms limiting their hours or even closing their doors in hospitals across the province.

Legault compared the labour shortage to the lack of patient attendants that resulted in a crisis in long-term care homes during the first wave of the pandemic.

The premier also says the government is looking at any and all options to entice nurses who have left the public sector to return.

Natalie Stake-Doucet is a registered nurse and the president of the Quebec Nursing Association. She says the government needs to listen to nurses on the ground, and do more to support them. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

And it's not just veteran nurses who are bearing the brunt of staff shortages.

Laurence Léonard, a 22-year-old nursing student, started working in the ER at Notre-Dame hospital during the height of the pandemic.

Already, she's wondering about her own future in the field due to the gruelling hours.

"They ask us to stay every night, every day. They ask us to be perfect when we pass our limits," she said.

Léonard said that while she loves her patients, it's a battle every time she wants to go home and get some rest.

"They ask us to do something that humans cannot do. They ask us to be 100 per cent there all the time, every day and they never give us a break," she said. 

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé has acknowledged the stress faced by nurses, especially because of summertime staff shortages.

Laurence Léonard, 22, said she has been working long hours ever since she started working in the ER. (Submitted by Laurence Léonard)

He says things will improve when people return from vacation and they'll soon see the benefits of a new collective agreement which he says will re-examine mandatory overtime and look at reducing the use of private agencies.

Nathalie Stake-Doucet, president of the Quebec Nursing Association, says if the government wants to keep its nurses, it needs to go "into crisis mode" and offer better pay incentives, as well as better management to support nurses on the ground.

She said the public system needs to be competitive with what is being offered in private clinics — including better hours and higher pay.

"Right now, it feels like the health-care system is something that's destroying our health and well-being. And I think a lot of nurses used to be afraid or nervous to leave, and they're not afraid anymore. We have nothing to lose but our health," she said.

In four weeks, the shortage could get even worse, as health-care workers who are not adequately vaccinated will be subject to suspensions without pay.

At a news conference Friday, Dubé said the government knew there were risks to making vaccinations mandatory for health-care workers, but making the network safe for patients and workers alike was a priority.

He said top managers in each region are developing contingency plans to make sure hospitals and clinics are equipped to make up for staff who would no longer be able to work.

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