Christelle Ishimwe always wanted to work in a hospital emergency room, but decided last month she'd forge a new path in life.
Ishimwe quit her job at The Ottawa Hospital to pursue nursing in northern Ontario full time.
In clinics in northern First Nations communities, Ishimwe says she receives time to treat patients and doesn't get abused.
"I'm excited, happy for the next chapter, but I really want to say how much guilt this causes, when you're literally saving your skin and leaving your friends and colleagues behind," she said.
The pandemic made a hard job harder. Ishimwe feared bringing the virus home to her mother who has respiratory problems.
She describes completing a 12-hour shift in full PPE as living in a "sauna" and remembers days where she showed up and the ER was short seven nurses.
But the abuse from patients and families, as well as the lack of support she felt from the hospital's administration, is what pushed her to try something new.
"If it was at a bank and someone was screaming at you, or hitting you, or spitting on you, your manager would show up and tell them, 'No, no, no. If this behaviour doesn't stop you have to leave.'"
"But it's not done. You don't get support. It's part of the job."
While Ishimwe understands it's stressful for patients to be in a hospital during a pandemic, she says it became too much.
Nurses need to feel hope, association says
That feeling of being undervalued is sucking hope and staff out of hospitals, according to Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario.
Nurses were in short supply in the province before the spread of COVID-19 in Canada, but the pandemic has made an already bad situation worse, Grinspun said.
Many nurses are leaving Ontario hospital jobs to start their own companies, work in smaller clinics, move to other provinces or the U.S. where the pay is better, or even turn freelance.
A report from the association published earlier this year calls it an exodus.
WATCH | What Ontario nurses have faced after almost two years of the pandemic
Grinspun says some are turning to an app called Staffy to pick up shifts at multiple hospitals.
"It gives you complete flexibility. You say yes when you want, no when you want. The pay is about three times what they're making [at hospitals]. They can choose to work more or they can choose to work less."
She says an emergency room nurse will usually make around $45 an hour on contract with a hospital, but on the app they can make $80 to $120 an hour, depending on how desperate the facility is for someone to cover a shift.
While Grinspun understands nurses' motivations, she says it doesn't lead to continuity of care for patients.
And it should be a wake up call to the province about the value of the profession, she says. The association is pushing Premier Doug Ford to repeal Bill 124 — a bill she says effectively cuts nurses wages, by capping increases below inflation levels.
Grinspun says senior nurses are retiring and, without their mentorship, early career nurses are leaving hospitals for other opportunities.
Despite a surge of nursing school applicants, the association head says staffing issues will continue until nurses feel valued.
Antea Corluka worked in the birthing unit of the Queensway Carleton Hospital for 12 years before making her final exit this spring.
"It's hard for even senior nurses to even take a day off," she said. "A nurse that has been there for 20 plus years can't even take a day off — like a random weekday — that hits hard," Corluka said.
Corluka found shift work affected her mood, but she loved the work.
Then she had a family and found that transition difficult, which is how she came to create her business Mama Coach, which helps bewildered new parents, after they've been released from hospital. She offers advice on everything from lactation support to sleep training.
In her new business, she gets to spend time with her clients, something she didn't get to do in hectic short-staffed shifts at the hospital and her hours are her decision.
"It's definitely been a beautiful thing to be able to be with my kids on a daily basis, put them to bed every night, for example," she said. "[And] bring them to school and be more present in their lives."