Thursday, May 08, 2003

SARS Strikes Nurses Nurses Harder Than Anyone Else

A rather upsetting article in the NY Times about Hong Kong nurses shouldering much of the burden of not only caring for SARS patients, but becoming victims themselves. One nurse talks about the burden of wearing protective equipment, and being avoided by friends and family.
But the worst by far has been the fear, a constant dread that the slightest mistake, like touching her eyes with a virus-contaminated finger, could leave her as feverish and breathless as the patients she treats, and perhaps even kill her.

"The most difficult part of the job is the psychological, not the physical," she said.
Although clearly the physical part is a problem as well:
While SARS is not quite as terrifying as it was nearly two months ago, when scientists knew almost nothing about it, the disease remains extremely dangerous for nurses. Despite many precautions, hundreds of nurses here and in other cities in Asia and Canada have been infected. Two or three more health care workers, usually nurses, are still being infected in Hong Kong every day.

Indeed, there are signs here that SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is becoming a disease that strikes nurses harder than anyone else. Doctors accounted for many of the initial patients here, as they became infected while checking the throats of patients and performing other clinical diagnostic tasks. But as blood tests and other means for identifying patients have emerged, doctors have spent less time close to infected patients.

Nurses, however, have been falling sick in large numbers. According to the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, nurses now make up 55 percent of the 368 health care workers who have had confirmed cases of SARS here over the last two months. Doctors now account for just 15 percent of cases, a percentage that is steadily dropping as more nurses fall ill, while the remaining 30 percent of cases are among ward attendants, nursing assistants, cleaners and other workers at hospitals and clinics.
But that's why they make the big bucks, no? No
In addition to facing more risks than doctors, Hong Kong's nurses earn considerably less. The heavily unionized nurses at public hospitals typically earn about $38,000 a year, while staff doctors at the same hospitals earn close to $80,000, said Joseph Lee, the chairman of the Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff, the union that represents two-thirds of the territory's 30,000 nurses.
One more interesting side note:
The first health care worker to die here of SARS was a nurse, Lau Wing Kai, on April 26. His funeral Wednesday was expected to draw many government officials. Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, ordered that he be buried at Gallant Garden, the cemetery for civil servants who die in the line of duty.
A cemetery for civil servants who die in the line of duty. That's an interesting idea. In this country we don't even give public employees the right to a safe workplace.