Fighting for my future

Nurses are being blocked from returning to work after injury despite having medical clearance. A young RN tells The Lamp of her battle to save her career.

Despite undergoing four back operations following a workplace injury, registered nurse Emily Orchard remains passionate about nursing and anxious to resume the career she set her sights on as a school girl.

Emily, 26, has been medically cleared for work that avoids heavy lifting; including specific clearance for an advertised position for 16 hours per week at a special care nursery, with her current employer.

But despite the shortage of nurses, she was turned down for that job and several others at no fewer than four Sydney hospitals.

The NSW Nurses’ Association is taking the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District to the Industrial Relations Commission on Emily’s behalf. The district refused to employ Emily, despite the decisions of a doctor and an independent functional assessor that she is able to do the 16-hour per week special care nursery job. The NSWNA maintains this is a breach of health service policy that requires injured workers to be given priority for suitable work.

“I’m desperately hoping we can reach a solution before we go to arbitration, but if not, I’m prepared to fight for my right to continue nursing,” said Emily, who must now rely on weekly workers’ compensation payments.

Emily hurt her back at St George Hospital in April 2007, when trying to resuscitate a patient who had gone into cardiac arrest. A CT and then MRI scan showed two discs had herniated with nerve compression. Months later Emily had a nerve block to manage the pain but it got worse, leading to bladder and bowel problems. Then followed four back operations over three years.

The first two aim to relieve pressure on the nerve by removing the part of the disc that was protruding, and some of the surrounding bone, and the third involved fusion surgery, which unfortunately failed. Each operation enabled her to go back to work after recuperation: at one stage she was back on the ward 8.5 hours a day, 4 days a week.

The final operation in 2010 succeeded in stabilising the spine by replacing the disc with a titanium cage and bone graft with rods and bolts into the bone. Doctors certified her fit to resume nursing duties starting with 8 hours a day, two days a week, with a lifting limit of 10kg. At the same time they suggested she consider a career outside adult nursing.

“It broke my heart when they told me that,” Emily, who had hoped to eventually do trauma nursing or retrieval work, said.

At school Emily had aimed to do a medical degree, until work experience at Sutherland Hospital. “When I worked with the nurses, and saw what they did, it was all I wanted to do. They were so encouraging and keen to teach. Their passion for their work made me passionate so I changed tack.”

Emily got into University of New England nursing under the principal’s recommendation scheme, before she had even done her HSC, and loved it. She now aims to get into neonatal nursing but cannot apply to do a certificate until she is employed in the area.

“I do find it distressing that I can’t find work when there is such a shortage of nurses. I find it confusing that I was permitted to work when I had an unstable spine, but now that I have a back which is as stable as anyone’s – because the problem disc has been removed and that level of my spine is stable with the rods and bolts – I can’t get a job.

“The stigma surrounding workers’ comp makes it worse. People who were friendly before my injury suddenly stopped being friendly. I’ve had other nurses treat me as though they are personally having to pay my medical bills, and tell me I’m in it for the money.

“I can to some extent understand where they are coming from. Sadly there are people out there doing the wrong thing.

“However I can assure you there is no profit in workers’ comp – you are broke.

“But the attitude persists that you must be lazy, that you just want to sit at home and get paid.

“One of these nurses hurt her own back and was off for a month. When she came back to the ward she said, ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t believe you’ve coped with this for three years, I would kill myself.’ From then on I got a bit less attitude from other people as well.”

Emily has had feedback of a different sort from other nurses who are also blocked from returning to work on suitable duties following injuries.

“One nurse hurt her back after a patient fell on her. Our experiences have been similar but I have had the union fighting for me and she was not a union member at the time, so they walked all over her.”