'We can't just rely on this idea that the Mammies might ask nurses to stay'
New INMO boss Phil Ni Sheaghdha says her members won't take mistreatment any more, writes Niamh Horan
'There was one particularly traumatic incident, when a person was out on a boat. They had an accident with a propeller and their limbs were severed."
Phil Ni Sheaghdha, the newly-appointed head of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), is recalling one of the many harrowing incidents she tended to while working as a nurse in intensive care.
Her words jar with the warm glow of the fairy lights, still twinkling around her, as she settles into a chair in the canteen and her first week in her new role.
"You focus immediately on stabilising the patient, giving them the care required, making sure the bleeding stops and fluids are replaced - working as a team," she says.
And when do your own emotions kick in? "When you finish your shift and you are driving home and you are wondering 'God, did we do everything we could?'"
Originally from the small rural village of Ventry, near Dingle, Ms Ni Sheaghdha developed a love for nursing while still a leaving cert student, working at a local care centre for the elderly. There she would play cards with patients and found joy in the simple moments of their interactions. A daughter of emigrant parents, it was these skills of building a nurse-patient rapport that stood her in good stead while working with end-of-life care patients at a cancer centre in New York, often tending to terminally ill children.
There, she says, "emotions were on a different scale". When the patients' families would say to her in an nonchalant tone: "Oh, you are on night duty tonight. That's great!" it made it worth the while. "It meant that trust was there. They knew they could relax a bit and go off and have a few hours sleep and you would call if needed."
In the midst of trolley figures and headlines about the health crisis, it is easy to forget the real stories behind the nurses who are now seeking better pay.
The INMO recently made a submission to the Public Sector Pay Commission citing that - in comparison to nurses in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - Irish nurses must have the same entry requirements but are paid 12-17pc less.
Ms Ni Sheaghdha says public policy in this country "absolutely encourages nurses to emigrate", with 70pc citing 'resignation' as their reason for leaving.
She cites how the UK treats our newly-trained nurses in comparison to bosses in Ireland. When Irish nurses qualify they are asked two simple questions: "What date can you notify us that you have passed your exams?' and "When you are coming and what do you specialise in?" In comparison, Irish healthcare bosses call nurses in for a rigorous full-scale interview, then wait six to eight weeks to inform them whether or not they have been accepted. Even then, they won't be informed which hospital they will be placed at.
All of this, and Ms Ni Sheaghdha says Irish nurses must then go on to endure "the lowest pay and the longest hours, while working under very difficult conditions in overcrowded hospitals".
The trade union boss says the Irish government needs to wake up and make Ireland an employer of choice that gives nurses an incentive to stay rather than hoping they'll have a gra for home. "We can't just rely on this idea that 'ah sure they'll be home for Christmas and Mammy might ask them to stay'."
She cites Brexit as a future factor that is going to have a detrimental effect on Irish hospitals if something isn't done to stop the drain of nurses. "The competition we have from the UK will get intensive. It will mean the nurses who are training here will be given very attractive packages to go to the UK."
Controversial choices and hard bargaining down the line for the INMO
Another issue coming down the tracks is the possibility that abortion on demand will be introduced in 2018.
Ms Ni Sheaghdha says the INMO doesn't take political positions, but she says: "I presume it will be debated at our conference in May."
Asked if nurses should be allowed to opt out of a termination procedure if it is against their personal beliefs, she said: "I think that is a matter that will be debated and determined."
It is possible, she says, that if the legislation is passed, nurses could ask the INMO for a 'conscientious objection clause' to be negotiated into their contract.
"They haven't said that yet because it isn't a feature, but if it were the case and if that was the mandate they gave us, that is what we would have to seek."
On her own opinion on abortion she says: "I don't have an opinion one way or another. I think that if women in Ireland require care - regardless of what it is, and if the law [is laid down] and the citizens vote to have the procedure here or not - then the care of the person is what we would be most concerned with. I don't have a position one way or another. My job has been the care of the patient."
In the meantime, Irish nurses have much more pressing demands to deal with, she says. If the INMO follows procedure and makes demands for better pay to the public service pay commission, and the commission finds in its favour but the Department of Finance still doesn't meet those demands then, she says: "You are going to have a big problem."