I aspire to join one of the most gratifying professions there is, a job where I take care of people in every aspect of their lives and where I make sure they can live in the best way possible. I’ve chosen a trade, not a calling—I saw it as a job, rather than a choice that requires me to give away all parts of my life. I’ve chosen to help others, but not at my expense.
I study nursing, and I work to afford school since I do not qualify for loans or bursaries and my parents cannot contribute financially to my studies. Not only do I work to study, but I take on debt to study. Finding a work-study balance is hard when my school and internship hours keep me from working as much as I should.
I never stop. The concept of a weekend no longer exists for me. On weekdays, I go to school, I have my internships. In the evenings, I study, I do my homework, I prepare for my courses and internships. On weekends, I work night shifts, day shifts, evening shits, on rotation and always according to the hospital’s needs. After my work shift, I study more, I prepare for my courses more and I start over, endlessly.
In this never-ending hustle, I have to find time for daily tasks like anybody else would, such as cleaning, doing laundry, running errands, making lunches, washing dishes, dealing with my landlord, calling my bank and my insurance company—all of that on a budget calculated down to the penny. Things add up during these endless weeks: sleep deprivation, malnutrition and stress. Stress, because my budget is already tight enough when my tuition fees come up, along with my winter electricity bill, the pile of books that will cost me three months worth of rent and my bus fare for the semester. Stress, because I need to decide what I won’t be capable of paying this month: internet, my credit card bill, my driver’s license?
My internships represent over 1,000 hours of unpaid work and are required for my training by my program. More than 1,000 hours where I do not study, but work. Yet I am not paid. I can say that I work because I accomplish the same tasks as the nursing staff. Even though I’m not paid, I’m legally responsible for my patients and for the care that I give, just the same as any other nurse, because I am a professional. I am there for over eight hours a day, and I must remain smiling, comprehensive, efficient, precise, impeccable. I am required to be just as good as the regular staff. And yet, I am not a nurse. I am a student. I am not protected by labour standards.
There is no consideration for the fact that I work to afford school, that I live under the poverty line and that I am accumulating a financial and sleep debt that are both growing day by day. I am told I need to deal with it, that my internship will prepare me, that my working conditions won’t be much different than my current conditions as an intern. I am told that lack of sleep on top of psychological and work overloads await me when I become a full-time nurse.
During our internships, just like at work, nursing students must arrive 30 minutes before and leave 30 minutes after our eight-hour shift so that continuity of care is assured for our patients. An extra hour every day. Everyone is under pressure. If an error occurs, I am just as responsible as the nurses. I may be expunged, even if I am just a student. I may be sued, even though I am in training. I am treated like a nurse from a legal standpoint, and I am asked to be a nurse from a professional point of view. I am told to be irreproachable, even though I am learning.
I do the same tasks as the hospital staff: the vital signs, the hygienic care, the medication, the checkups, educating beneficiaries and much more. I have access to the same insufficient resources, the same dysfunctional spaces—where one-patient rooms are transformed into two-patient rooms, where each act of care requires moving an entire set of equipment. It’s an environment where everyone is caught up in the gymnastics of doing more with less. I am subjected to the same conditions, the same cuts that I am told are just the tip of the iceberg.
Teachers and society are trying to force students into a defective mould instead of changing it. The solution does not reside in more budget cuts to a system that is already choking from having to tighten its belt. I work and I study in public fields that are crying out for help, accustomed to seeing their budgets amputated year after year. In these fields, many take it upon themselves to deal with these burdens. We tell ourselves that beneficiaries should not be the ones having to pay and suffer for these budget cuts, so we suffer blow after blow. As a woman, a student, a worker, a recipient and giver of care, as a citizen, I speak out in opposition of this oppression.
I am opposed to this endless austerity. I advocate for the women in every field, for the student-parents, for those who take on debt, for those who go back to school for a better future, for those who work two jobs during their studies just to get by.
I am often asked why I carry on, why I’m an activist, why I chose the nursing trade. I have chosen to discuss the issues, the problems, the solutions, to get involved and to go on strike. I have chosen to refuse to work for free and without better rights and working conditions. I am doing it to make a difference, be it for the beneficiaries, the students, the workers or the parents. I believe that by choosing to give wages to interns, we can all make a difference for interns and, as a result, the patients they care for.
By Kaëlla Stapels, Collège de Maisonneuve