Back in the day, when I was still spending many an hour trying to extract information from the occupiers of Confederation Building offices, it was an accepted fact of frustration that reporters practically required a note from God —be it the god Frank, the god Brian, the god Clyde — to get a civil servant to talk on the record.
If lucky enough, you might strike up a healthy and trustworthy relationship with a deputy minister or assistant deputy minister who would be willing to have an off-the-record conversation that could provide the gist of a decent story from the high and windy hill, a yarn quoting a “high-ranking civil servant.”
But sitting with notebook in hand across the desk from an upper echelon bureaucrat willing to be quoted publicly, or having one of the mandarins in a radio or television studio to talk policy? Rare indeed.
So it was refreshing, at first blush, to see the deputy minister of health, John Abbott, talking in a very provocative fashion in front of CBC cameras this past week, delivering a blunt assessment of his department’s inability, as far as he’s concerned, to get a proper bang for its buck, the most bucks spent per capita on health matters than in any other province.
Too bad he virtually shot his credibility to hell when he decided to focus at one point in his interview on what he considered to be an over-abundance of nurses in the province, and to chastise those same nurses in the employ of the government for taking way too much sick leave.
Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
There’s no doubt — there’s been no doubt forever — that the health system has significant flaws, and that the extraordinary amount of money it takes from the public coffers seems not to have the sort of impact that it should.
But taking on the nurses, among the most overworked and most dedicated employees on the public payroll, seemed like a strange, disingenuous and ultimately backfiring route for Abbott to travel in his quest to convince Newfoundlanders that the health system requires some serious revamping.
When I heard what he said about nurses, here’s a few memories that came immediately to mind:
It’s the wee hours of the morning on the fourth or fifth day after I’ve been admitted to the Health Sciences Centre and undergone emergency surgery to remove a cancerous obstruction in my colon, and I am in a state, physically and emotionally. I have no control over my bowels. It is demeaning. But a nurse does an amazing job, not just with the cleanup, but working with a constant smile, and making me feel half-human, even when, five minutes later, there is another mess she has to deal with. Again, a smile, and words to the effect: “We’ll get that cleared up in no time; don’t you worry about a thing.” She was like a guardian angel, even for a non-believer.
It’s again in the early morning hours, this time at St. Clare’s Hospital, and I’m recovering from my second cancer surgery, this time to remove tumours from my liver, and I’m absolutely spent, psychologically and physically. A nurse enters the room on her regular rounds, and when I complain of general discomfort, she says she’ll return during her break to give me a back massage. That’s right: on her break. I told her I didn’t want to deprive her of her few minutes of rest away from her patients. But she insisted. And she was true to her word.
A couple of months later, I’m at the Dr. Bliss Murphy Cancer Clinic, a regular weekly visit for chemotherapy. And everywhere I turn, there’s a nurse with a kind word, even a hug, creating an atmosphere of hope and sanity for people like me enduring the tortures of the damned.
So when union president Debbie Forward says nurses are overworked, and constantly dealing with an inordinate amount of stress, and that the province needs more nurses, I take her words at face value.
In the “only in Newfoundland” category, as my mother is fond of saying: a nurse is removing staples from my stomach, after a third operation, and when I complain about the slight pain, she responds: “Oh, go way with ya, ya big sook.” Everyone in the room, including me, has a grand laugh, a welcome laugh, at that.
I could go on and on. Suffice to say, I’ve seen nurses consistently go way beyond their duties, not just for me, but other people within my circle of love, including my wife, my father and mother. There are countless examples.
So when union president Debbie Forward says nurses are overworked, and constantly dealing with an inordinate amount of stress, and that the province needs more nurses, I take her words at face value. I believe the concerns she voices are not simply the self-serving rhetoric of a labour leader looking to expand the membership. This not a campaign to increase the number of office workers, the desk jockeys, in the public system. These are (mostly) women in critical, life and death positions.
Just to reiterate: having a member of the senior management of Newfoundland’s civil service speak out about reducing expenditure is to be applauded.
And Abbot has shown in the past that he’s capable of having loose-cannon tendencies, not necessarily an unproductive quality in the sometimes stagnant and overly satisfied world of the senior public service.
It’s just too bad his aim last week was so indiscriminate.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org