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.
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