PERSONAL
10/04/2021 09:29 BST | Updated 12/04/2021 08:23 BST

I Didn't Quit The NHS Because Of The Pandemic. It Was The Bullying

Battling, then having – Covid in a foreign country was frightening. But you know what was even worse? Being constantly let down by the institution I worked for.

After a decade working in the Middle East, where my sexuality made living safely difficult, a good friend encouraged me to apply to work as a nurse in the UK. It would, I thought, at least be a more open and accepting place to work.

Yet after a struggle to get my registration and joining a ward who had no idea I was even starting, I was told I would be treated as a newly qualified nurse. This was demeaning and insulting – I believed I was hired because of my decade of experience, but clearly my experience did not matter. 

Ironically, of course, they would do a complete 180 when it suited. One day I could be taking care of critically ill patients and helping them with the dialysis machines, and the next told never to touch those machines as I didn’t have the training. There was no consistency; it was as if anything goes when you’re understaffed and desperate.

My first experience of direct racism and bullying came a few months in, when I was not given my breaks during my twelve-hour critical care shifts. I couldn’t help but notice white nurses get their breaks whenever they asked, but for me it was always a “sorry, we didn’t remember,” or “oh, we didn’t know that you needed one.” Worse, whenever white staff needed help, somebody would always be there to support them, while I treated combative, delirious patients far above my ‘newly qualified’ pay grade without support.

And if there was a misunderstanding between me and a white nurse, senior staff would assume it was my fault and force me to apologise for things I had not done under threat of losing my license to work in the UK. I had no choice – if I lost my job and my visa, I would be forced to go back home with nothing. 

There were days when I felt like my colleagues were ganging up on me, and that I had to fend for myself.

I decided to transfer to a different ward to escape the bullying and finally focus on my career.  But the bullying continued, greatly affecting my mental health. There were days when I felt like my colleagues were ganging up on me, and that I had to fend for myself. When I told my seniors I wanted to resign because I couldn’t handle it any more, they said I was being “overly emotional” because of the hormones I was taking to transition. This would be offensive enough if I was, but the truth is I wasn’t transitioning at all. 

In the early days of the pandemic, I experienced Covid symptoms but was not given access to a test. I was forced to self-isolate, but despite my symptoms the hospital would call every day to find out when I would be back. I felt I was being forced to work and my own health and safety does not matter at all.

Last winter, I found out that I had been exposed to Covid-positive doctors and staff, and no one informed me – I only found out by chance when reading my patient’s notes that a few of the doctors were asymptotic but Covid positive while operating on a patient. Even then, I was refused an urgent test because I wasn’t seen as at risk. Others had been freely given swabs on request. On the weekend when I did my scheduled routine swab, I of course tested positive.

Having Covid in a foreign country was frightening enough – I lacked the support of my family and I was riding through this disease alone. But do you want to know what was even worse? Being constantly let down by the people in the institution that I work for, knowing that they wouldn’t be there for me when I needed them. Had I not done enough to get the support and protection I deserved during these trying times? 

I will always wish the best for the NHS but unless they change their ways and behaviours towards people of colour and of different backgrounds, I fear the UK will become a stepping stone for international medical professionals.

It was all too much. I was sacrificing both my physical and mental health to help patients without any proper protection or recognition, and my treatment finally pushed me to leave the NHS – and the UK entirely – for a job in America.

Though I felt relieved, I know I am far from the only one this has happened too. There are other people of colour and international nurses that will have experienced the same – many that have already left, and more on the cusp.

I will always wish the best for the NHS but unless they change their ways and behaviours towards people of colour and of different backgrounds, I fear the UK will become a stepping stone for international medical professionals like me, and not a place they want to work for in the long run.Not only would that mean a costly, continuous struggle for the NHS to provide the care the country needs, it would mean minority staff like me will have to suffer in silence and in fear. 

Riel’s story is part of Nursing Narratives: Racism and the Pandemic, an AHRC Urgent Covid19 Call project. For more information, health workers can fill in their survey here 

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