A debilitating frontline conveys mental health jobs

Nolwenn Le Bonzec used to work as a nurse in Brussels before retraining as a baker. (AFP photo)

Brussels: Someone makes a pastry. Another dreams of becoming a bookseller. Everyone shut the doors of the hospitals they used to work in, exhausting wave after wave of Covid-19 patients.

Nolwyn Le Bonzec, a former nurse who moved from her hometown of Brittany to the Belgian capital Brussels, recounted how she hung on her surgical uniform six months ago and did not look back.

Now she is making colorful little cakes. She says it’s a radical transformation that “saved my mental health”.

I worked for five years in a hospital. Little by little I saw working conditions deteriorate, and health became a product. “In the beginning, it was a profession we took to be humanitarian,” says the 27-year-old, wearing a black apron for the Lilicup store where she now works.

Thomas Laurent, another former nurse, has wanted to work in a hospital since he was 15 – it was “an old dream,” he explains. In January he will start training as a bookseller.

The 35-year-old Frenchman had just left the emergency department at Lyon Hospital in central France. He says the conditions there are “no longer acceptable”.

Despite a desperate call by European authorities for medical staff to treat wave after wave of Covid-19 patients, these former nurses speak of disappointment and disappointment with public health systems that they say are far less than they were designed for.

We have been calling for better conditions for years. But the (Belgian) government simply isn’t taking us seriously, ”says Le Ponzec.

“If I continued, I think I would have fallen into depression. We protested. We stood. But it didn’t change anything.”

They died alone

Recalling her days at the Saint-Luc Clinic in Brussels, she explained that she doubted her choice of profession when the first wave of Coronavirus struck in early 2020.

“Psychologically, it was really difficult to work in quarantine wards and fight all the time just to put on face masks. We are putting our health and the health of our families at risk. And these patients were not allowed any visitors. They were all alone, they died alone … We weren’t enough.”

She says the staff shortage has drastically affected the care provided to patients.

“Unfortunately, we were quick to treat us. And when we did everything quickly, we did it badly … It was unbearable,” she says.

Day by day, the thought of going to the hospital became increasingly difficult. Until finally she didn’t feel more energy for her chosen function, just “frustration” and “indifference.”

“Six months later, I haven’t missed my baby days at all. I’m happy to go to work now, and talk about my workday when I get home,” says Le Bonzic.

Laurent contests. He says that since he stopped working as a nurse he has “slept better”. The overwhelming daily stress has “disappeared”. It wasn’t until 4 am in the morning that it didn’t start to dazzle the bright eyes he offered on his face mask.

No more applause

Younger employees feel the difficult reality of nursing. “Because they move into this work full of ideals, they get a cold shower like it actually does, and they don’t always get the support they need to deal with burnout,” says Astrid Van Mali, the Belgian nurse who changed roles to support the healthcare staff.

She says the people she sees “don’t always think about taking care of themselves because they are used to taking care of others.” “They are waiting until their world around them collapses.”

Some feel guilty about taking days off and fear it will overburden their colleagues, she adds.

“If nothing is done, soon we will not have more hospital health workers. Even foreign nurses do not accept these terms of work.”

During the first wave of the Coronavirus, the applause of appreciation for medical staff reverberated across porches in Europe. During this second wave, there is no clapping.

“People clap for us, but they don’t stand up for us, it’s very easy,” says Le Ponzec. “They need to use their energy to help us!”

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