For years John Hobdy worked as a Pittsburgh paramedic, treating people who needed emergency care, getting them to a hospital and then moving on to the next call.
Once, before the pandemic, Hobdy responded to a call in which a daughter discovered her mother had attempted suicide. He arrived and found the mother had died. She left a note explaining that she’d tried to get help but never succeeded. She apologized for letting everyone down.
“I said, ‘No, we let you down,’” Hobdy said. “She was somebody I’d taken to the hospital before, and they just let her back on the street. Mental illness is a real thing. It’s not taken seriously by most people. Being depressed, being schizophrenic — those are things you can’t see. It’s different from breaking your arm or having a heart attack. If you say, ‘I’m depressed,’ they say ‘Get over it, deal with it.’ The sympathy isn’t there. It’s just a psych issue, they say, it’s not a medical issue. Well, all psych issues are medical issues.”
Hobdy, 34, had already developed a yearning to do something more, to be part of patients’ long-term care, so he enrolled in nursing school. Last September, after graduation, he began work as a registered nurse at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. He quickly discovered the difficulties of providing long-term care in Pittsburgh’s medical facilities.
“We’re supposed to be advocates for our patients, but frequently we get only 10 to 15 minutes with them,” he said. “That’s not enough time to get a sense of what’s really going on, especially with psych patients. It feels like we’re just there to check a box, not to attend to patient needs. I wanted to be able to help people more than just the here and now that I did as a medic.”
So on Thursday, Hobdy joined other nurses and advocates who gathered on the City-County Building portico for a news conference Downtown highlighting problems nurses see in their profession — problems affecting patient care as well as the health and well-being of nurses — and to offer solutions.
The day before, more than 100 nurses met for the first-ever Pittsburgh Nurse Summit to exchange ideas to address what they say is a “workforce crisis.” They expressed frustration with “superficial solutions” from executives out of touch with the needs of front-line workers. That frustration spilled over into Thursday’s event.
“Nurses are done relying on executives to do what’s right,” said Myra Taylor, a registered nurse at Allegheny General Hospital. “We’re taking action to lead the nursing profession out of this crisis.”
Over the next year, 4,200 nurses and other health care workers will begin negotiating new contracts. This time, nurses say, it won’t be business as usual.
Joel Gundy, a registered nurse at UPMC Children’s Hospital, recalled the difficulties of working as a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic and watching as colleagues “fell to stress and exhaustion and the real limitations of the mind and body.”
When the COVID vaccine arrived, nurses hoped their workplaces would return to a pre-pandemic normalcy. They needed an opportunity to heal from the trauma of their COVID work experiences, he said. It didn’t happen.
“We’ve instead been pushed to the brink of collapse,” Gundy said. “COVID skeleton crews proved to be much more profitable than their modestly staffed predecessors. The costs were only in lives but the profits were in dollars. After calling us heroes they starting telling us as heroes we could do many new things. Job responsibilities swelled exponentially, often without training and almost always without any new compensation.”
Experienced nurses left and were replaced by travel nurses who collected higher pay, causing resentment. Hospital administrators knew good people were leaving and didn’t care, he said.
Pay is a primary concern. “I’ve heard countless stories of my co-workers being unable to afford child care, rent or other necessities without grueling overtime shifts or second jobs,” Gundy said.
Taylor said nurses often feel they have two careers — one in which they care for patients and another that involves pushing back against executives who “put profits over people.”
“Our patients are not part of some algorithm. They’re parents, siblings, children, they’re our neighbors, and above all they’re people who deserve the highest level of care and consideration from the people they’ve entrusted with their health.”
Jeff Shook, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, cited a research project that explored the challenges nurses and other health care workers face. The study’s findings fell in line with what the nurses were saying. Nurses and health care workers struggle to pay bills, work difficult jobs made more so by understaffing and high turnover, endure verbal and physical harassment, and receive little support from executives who make decisions without input from front-line workers who deal with patients.
The result: Nurses experience high levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideations, according to the report.
Shook said the report pointed to several solutions: increased pay, a focus on recruiting and retaining staff nurses instead travel nurses, improved health care insurance and access to mental health services, and a voice in the decision-making process.
Gundy said hospital administrators just won’t listen to those who deal with patients and know how to solve problems. When issues arise, he said, “UPMC sends around fun-sized chocolate bars and a man offering lavender hand lotion.
“We put in our blood sweat and tears into meeting the needs of our hospitals,” he said. “It’s time they take nurses’ voices seriously. We know the needs of our communities, and we have solutions. We need to be heard.”