French hospitals crisis: why staff are sick of their conditions

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A long-simmering frustration and discontent among accident and emergency (A&E) personnel in French hospitals, who complain of under-staffing, patient over-crowding, and of being under-equipped and under-paid, spilled over in March into strike action at more than 60 hospitals across France. Their demands include the recruitment of extra staff, more hospital beds and a monthly net pay increase of 300 euros. As the crisis has continued to grow, talks this month between the government and hospital staff representatives led to French health minister Agnès Buzyn announcing a 70 million-euro aid package that included pay increases and provisions for hiring temporary staff for the summer months – which recurrent heatwaves over recent years have made a critical period. The collective association representing A&E staff, Inter-Urgences, on Monday rejected the measure, which it described as “insufficient”, underlining that the overall 2019 nationwide hospital budget amounts to 82 billion euros. For the most part, the strike action has been largely symbolic, with staff continuing to care for patients while wearing protest armbands and putting up protest banners in hospital corridors. But the anger and desperation of the A&E personnel is such that at two Paris hospitals, l’hôpital Lariboisière and l’hôpital Saint-Antoine, staff earlier this month took last-minute overnight sick leave. Mediapart interviewed nurses and nursing assistants with the A&E services at the hôpital Lariboisière, close to the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris, who describe here their day-to-day working conditions, frustrations and fears and, despite it all, how their dedication remains intact.

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    © Pierre Michel Jean

    Barbara Coué, 37, who has worked for the past 11 years a nurse at the Lariboisière hospital. She has been on sick leave since May.

    “I have a problem with my vertebral column. The MRI [editor’s note: Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan] showed that I have damaged discs between my small vertebrae. That’s notably due to handling people. When you have old people who are heavy, when you have to twist to take a hold of them, it causes damage. One night, I went to attach a drip high up and I could no longer lift my arm above the level of my shoulders. Pushing stretchers which weigh double, even triple my weight, with people on them, when you’re alone, there’s breakage. I wasn’t able to work anymore. I’ve had this problem for two years. I told myself it would pass, that it wasn’t very serious. And if I took sick leave, there would automatically be more work for the others. I didn’t want to place my colleagues in difficulty.”

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