Read Riel’s story.
I have worked in the Middle East for 10 years, but because of my sexuality it proved to be difficult, so a good friend of mine encouraged me to apply as a nurse in the UK. I was hesitant because I lost £1000 to a fraudulent UK agency, when I applied some years earlier, but I thought that it would be a bit more of an open and accepting place to work.
When I arrived the ward did not even know I was coming to work for them. They said, ‘we thought you were coming next year’.
As an international nurse, the NMC upholds its standards for people joining their register, it required us to sit for an Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) and successfully pass it, only then will we be able to obtain our Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) pin and join the register. This meant that the hospital that sponsored my visa had the responsibility to have a program particularly curated towards international nurses. However, no proper adaptation program was organised and my name was left out in the email communication for study days, which resulted in me not being able to participate. This left me with no other choice but to pay for a private review centre to help me with my NMC registration.
When I did get my registration, I was told that I would be treated as a newly qualified nurse. This was very demeaning and insulting to me because I thought that I was hired because of my experience, clearly experience did not matter. I was treated as a newly qualified nurse, yet it’s ironic that they would do a complete 180 degree turn when they’re desperate. One day I could be taking care of critically ill patients and helping them with the dialysis machines and the next day I would be told not to touch those machines as I didn’t have training for them. Their system had no consistency, it was as if anything goes when you’re understaffed and desperate, often blurring the lines of duties and responsibilities.
My first experience of bullying and racism happened in my first few months working in Critical Care, I was not given my breaks for my 12.5 hours shift. They would often say “Oh sorry, we didn’t remember.’ or “oh, we didn’t know that you needed one,” or you needed to cut your break short because the other white nurses needed their breaks.
It was also then that I noticed that a white nurse would have preferential treatment as compared to me, a person of colour. White nurses would get their breaks, and whenever they needed help, somebody would always be there to support them. In comparison, when I had to ask for help, they would often say, “You didn’t sound so urgent” and even though they treated me as newly qualified and told me that I wasn’t supposed to have Level 2 or 3 patients, I would often get patients that were combative and delirious. These type of patients had the tendency to jump out of their beds, making it next to impossible to calm them down alone, but my fellow nurses did not offer their help to me.
If there was a misunderstanding in the unit and it was between me and a white nurse, they would automatically assume that it was my fault and that the problem was with me. I was always being forced to apologise for things I had not done. When I did speak out and tell them what the problem was, I was often told that I was rude and they would threaten to refer me to the Matron all the time. I felt like I was a kid misbehaving and people were using their power card on me in order for me to submit to their will. In the beginning, I was just trying to survive and thought that I had to prove my worth and impress them. It was in order for me to keep my job. If I lost it, I could lose my visa and I would be forced to go back home with nothing to show.
I decided to transfer to the Recovery Ward to finally escape the bullying and I thought that maybe I will finally be able to progress my career there. During my yearly appraisals, I would often ask for training. They would then give me an OK and tell me that they will try. But the only occasion I was given a non-mandatory study day was when my manager only approved 75% of the cost, it felt like they were not supportive of my training and development. After that incident, I stopped asking for study days and only did the mandatory training required.
But the bullying continued, it greatly affected my mental health. There were days when I felt like they were all ganging up against me and that I was left all alone to fend for myself. It was then that I decided to see the Matron and file my formal complaint. When the Matron received my complaint, it was dealt with indifference, she then tells me that “your complaint starts with ‘I feel…, I feel not appreciated…, I feel I was bullied.’ Riel let me give you a piece of advice, I want you to stop feeling”. But I felt like my work was all about feeling, feeling for the needs of my patients and helping them.
The experience that impacted me the most was when I finally informed my matron that I wanted to resign because I cannot handle the bullying anymore. She started gaslighting that I was only being “overly emotional” because of the hormones I was taking to transition. This would be offensive enough if I was, but I wasn’t transitioning at all. This was the final straw, it seemed like they were making up excuses for the way I was treated and the way I was bullied as a justification for their actions.
In the beginning of the Covid Pandemic, I experienced Covid symptoms but they would not give me access to a swab test. I was forced to self-isolate, however despite my symptoms, my line manager would call me every day to find out when I would be back to work. When I did return to work, I was not given appropriate PPE and I wasn’t prioritised.
On October 2020, I found out that I had been exposed to a Covid-positive patient. No one informed me. I only found out when I was reading my patient’s notes. I requested for a priority test, but I was refused. Other staff were freely given one and on the weekend that I did my routine swab, I tested positive for Covid.
Having Covid in a foreign country was frightening for me. 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? It was being constantly let down by the people in the institution that I work for, it was knowing that they wouldn’t be there for me when I needed them. Have I not done enough in my unit to receive the support and protection I was entitled to during these trying times of the pandemic? The system has continually let me down on numerous occasions.
The most disturbing thing for me during the pandemic was the treatment of migrant workers like me. Filipinos or a non-white citizens were not prioritised or taken care of. I had a friend who came to the UK around February, I felt that she was also being taken advantage of because she’s the one who is least able to say no, because she just came in, she just started the job. Even without their pin, they are deployed to COVID wards, she was working for five days in a week on a COVID ward without her pin, taking care of COVID patients without any recognition yet from the NMC. She can’t say no, because it’s no choice for her. If you say no, you might lose your job. You don’t have any pin yet. You don’t have any actual status here. Also in our community, it’s not our culture to say no, if we are needed, especially if it’s nurses, you need to help, it’s your responsibility as a nurse.
It was all so much, I feel sacrificing both my physical and mental health to help patients without any proper protection or recognition, finally pushed me to leave the NHS, and the UK entirely, for a job in America. I felt relieved and finally free leaving the NHS. I finally felt I found the recognition I deserve as a nurse. I know it is not just me, there are others, especially people of colour and internationally hired nurses that felt and experienced the same that have already left and there are more who are in the process of leaving.
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 and that would mean a costly and continuous struggle for the NHS to provide the health care services that every patient deserves and for international professionals like me a lot will continue to suffer in silence and in fear.
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