Maureen Brennan is a registered nurse who worked in intensive care for six years.
Her last shift was on Aug. 4, 2016.
Brennan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and said she’ll never return to acute care nursing again.
“I had one patient dead in the bed, getting him ready for the morgue, and I had my other one come right through the door,” she recalled.
“I had two patients there, and one was a horrific, horrific situation. The next one was an emergency surgery — it was also a horrific situation. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I said, ‘I cannot take any more death and disfigurement.’
“What we will see over the course of our careers — nobody should ever see,” said Brennan.
“As a critical care nurse, I have seen things — what people have done to each other, what people have done to themselves, and the extraordinary measures people will go through to keep somebody alive when we really shouldn’t — that becomes very morally distressing, and that is an everyday occurrence.”
Brennan said there’s no more intimate a relationship than helping someone during their final hours of life.
She described caring not only for her patients, but for their families, too.
Sometimes patients would be in her care for weeks in intensive care and she’d bond with them and their families.
“Over the course of my career, I will grieve so often for the patients that I’ve bonded with and that I’ve cared for. I got to a point that I had absolutely nothing left to give. It’s so pervasive in the nursing profession—actually, in all healthcare professions.”
In a dark shade of luck, she was able to identify that specific shift on Aug. 4, 2016 that “really impacted” and “damaged” her, and was the “final straw” which caused her PTSD.
Because she was able to pinpoint that specific incident, it was easier to get approved for worker’s compensation.
However, Brennan said her PTSD was truly a “long time coming” and that “it didn’t happen overnight.”
In the beginning, Brennan was embarrassed about her diagnosis and thought she had some “inherent flaw” and not a workplace injury.
“I didn’t want to go off on worker’s compensation because the wages are very, very low. I mean, nobody wants to be on worker’s compensation, but I had no choice. I had to do this for my mental health and for my family’s well-being.”
Since she’s gone public with her struggles, she’s been inundated with others in the profession seeking help. She even started the Registered Nurses Support Group to encourage self-care and promote awareness of psychological stress injuries and prevention.
Through that work, she’s had nurses tell her they feel “dead inside”.
“We’re human beings and we cannot go through a 30-year career and do what we do and see some unimaginable things that you will never get out of your mind, and expect it not to affect your psychological well-being.”
Brennan now spends her time working to promote the psychological health and safety of nurses. She gives lectures to nursing students and speaks at conferences.
She said it’s critical that government implement presumptive mental health legislation because not every case of workplace-related mental illness is as clear-cut as hers.
“We’re human beings and we cannot go through a 30-year career and do what we do and see some unimaginable things that you will never get out of your mind and expect it not to affect your psychological well-being.” — Maureen Brennan, an RN who suffers from PTSD
Presumptive legislation refers to the acceptance of injury claims for a medical or psychiatric diagnosis without a worker having to prove the disorder is a result of an event or exposure while on the job.
“I could get really emotional now because it’s not fair,” she cried, saying it’s “absolutely scandalous” that some other provinces include presumptive mental health legislation while Newfoundland and Labrador does not.
“There’s absolutely no difference between what I see in St. John’s, Newfoundland to what a nurse in Labrador sees and what my colleagues in Toronto see.”
She said presumptive legislation will say to nurses that decision-makers acknowledge the realities of their everyday work.
Employers’ Council’s view “regressive”
Registered Nurses’ Union president Debbie Forward said Brennan’s experience is reflective of many other workers.
“It’s real within various workplaces and that’s why this progressive legislation that has been brought into play in other provinces is so important, and why it’s so disturbing to hear the Employers’ Council stay with their regressive view.”
Forward is referring to a letter sent to Premier Dwight Ball and MHAs in the province by the Employers’ Council. In the letter, the council opposes presumptive mental health legislation, writing that it would privilege “one class of injuries or workers over others” and “would place the cost of all mental health treatment for the majority of the population on employers”.
Forward questioned who the Employers’ Council, and its executive director, Richard Alexander, is representing.
“Our health care employers in this province — is (Alexander) speaking on behalf of them? Because that I would find even more disturbing. It would actually shock me and surprise me because our health employers have been very progressive.”
Forward said if the council is truly speaking on behalf of employers in this province, then “shame on all of them because this is so regressive.”
Forward urged government to listen to workers like Brennan.
“We should be supporting workers first, not making workers have to prove it. We should be supporting them first, telling them they are covered, and the onus be on the employer to say, ‘No, this wasn’t a result of a workplace incident.’”
The Employers’ Council’s position has also been criticized by the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees and the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.