Mon | Feb 24, 2020

Michael Abrahams | Thank you, nurses

Published:Monday | June 11, 2018 | 1:23 AM

The year was 1989. I was in my first internship rotation, internal medicine, at the University Hospital of the West Indies. It was the end on the month and I had just picked up my pay cheque. 

Lavern was a registered nurse who was working on the same ward as I and had also collected hers. I was on my way to the bank on campus, and she had asked me for a lift as she was heading there as well. I gladly obliged.

Somehow, on the way to the bank, we engaged in a conversation about salaries, and she told me what the figure on her pay cheque was. I remember laughing heartily at her declaration because I thought she was joking. I cannot recall how much it was, but it was absolutely ridiculous. 

Then she handed it to me and I realised she was serious. I was appalled and immediately silenced, trying to understand how someone could obtain tertiary-level education, be certified, save lives and contribute to the well-being of the society, and be disrespected with such a paltry sum for their efforts. 

By the time my internship was over, Lavern had relocated to the United States, as she found it hard to survive on what she was being paid in Jamaica. That was 29 years ago.

Last month, I saw a patient I had not seen for several years. When I glanced at the front sheet in her file, I noted that she was a student the last time she visited my office. I asked her what she was doing with her life now, and she replied that she was a nurse, working at the University Hospital of the West Indies. My next question was “When will you be leaving Jamaica?” Her answer: “Soon.” 

So, three decades after my rude awakening regarding nurses’ salaries, the situation remains the same. Our nurses are overworked, overwhelmed, underpaid and underappreciated.

I empathise with our nurses. And it is not just the inadequate salaries that hurt, but the attitudes they face from those who employ them. If the country genuinely cannot afford to pay them, fine. But we see taxes being waived for wealthy corporations, and corrupt politicians profiting off our country, while many of our nurses struggle. And I have observed this with successive administrations. 

This is not confined to government institutions either. At a Corporate Area private hospital, nurses and other workers have received a decrease in their salaries from January this year, and the administration did not even have the decency to forewarn them. In addition, they do not receive travelling or uniform allowance, but are expected to perform their duties diligently. 

One of them told me that during a meeting last week, while discussing their grouses, an accountant laughed unempathetically while talking to them, and a senior member of the administrative hierarchy shouted at one of them to “shut up”. Now, not surprisingly, they have taken industrial action. 

Since then, threats have been made to fire some of them, but I stand firmly and resolutely with them, and offer my full support.

It is not an easy road for our nurses. They need to be paid decent salaries, and it is a slap in the face to claim to not be able to pay them, but be willing to import nurses from overseas. Such an attitude is disrespectful and offensive.

Being a nurse can place your health, and even life, at risk. In addition to being exposed to communicable diseases, nurses are also exposed to violence from patients and their relatives and associates. Travelling to and from work at odd hours is also risky in our brutal society. Sometimes they are expected to do the work of janitors and porters. 

A significant number of nurses sustain back injuries and develop chronic back pain from lifting, turning, pushing and pulling patients. Add the psychological and verbal abuse from obnoxious patients and their visitors, and one can see how the job can take a toll.

I am an obstetrician and gynaecologist, and there is no way I can manage my patients effectively without the assistance of nurses. I need them at my office. I need them in the outpatient department. I need them on the hospital wards. I need them on the maternity unit. I need them in the operating theatre. I need them in the recovery room.

The truth is, without the assistance of nurses, some of the patients I have managed would have died or would not have recovered as well as they did. Nurses are the backbone of the health sector, and appropriate levels of respect and renumeration are long overdue.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank every nurse that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. My gratitude knows no bounds. You all deserve better.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.