Nurse keeps trucking after leaving N.B. hospital job during the pandemic

Nurses still being driven to quit, says union leader, as vacancies climb to 1,200

Leah Gorham, 43, feels no regrets after leaving a 15-year nursing career at the Saint John Regional Hospital for life in a transport truck. 

Gorham quit in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, part of a voluntary exodus that fiscal year that saw 1,100 health-care workers leave the two health authorities.

Vitalité CEO Dr. France Desrosiers would later describe it as an “HR crisis” largely driven by work overload.

Despite recruitment campaigns, New Brunswick nurses are still leaving the profession at a faster rate than new ones are being hired.

A selfie of a woman and a man sat in the cab of a truck
Leah Gorham and her partner, Roland Bereczki, take turns driving. ‘We always have fun together,’ says Gorham. (Submitted by Leah Gorham)

But such problems are now in Gorham’s rearview mirror, replaced by challenges that don’t feel as severe. 

“Traffic can be stressful at times,” she said from the cab of her super deluxe 2023 Peterbilt 579 Ultra-Loft en route to Windsor, Ont., but it “sure beats the hectic hospital.”

On the road 70 hours a week, Gorham said she’s spelled off by her business and romantic partner, Roland Bereczki.

While he’s resting in the back of the extra big sleeper, Gorham counts down the miles in the company of Jenny, a miniature poodle Gorham got in Guelph. 

Lately, they’ve been running auto parts between Ontario and the U.S. 

“I love Iowa,” Gorham said. “We go to a little town called Dubuque — cute little towns that I’m not used to seeing.”

“I often have a lot of time to think when I’m driving on the road and the thing about nursing is —  I really felt I was making a difference and I struggle to do that with trucking. But I guess I’m driving the economy.”

Feared for safety

Former co-workers do sometimes ask her if she’ll ever come back.

“I say I’m with you in my dreams,” 

Gorham’s radical career change touched a nerve at the cusp of what became known, especially in the U.S. as the “Great Resignation” — an economic trend that saw great numbers of American workers quit in 2021. 

Her story was carried by Fox News and CNN, then picked up by papers such as the Arizona Daily Star and the Washington Examiner. 

She gave a TV interview to News Nation’s Morning in America and was also featured in a podcast series and in various online trade journals, including Truck News, Scrub News and Truck Drivers USA. 

“I think it’s because nurses are needed so much, people are like: Why would they ever leave nursing? Well, I make a lot more money doing this.”

Then she quickly adds, it’s not just about the money. 

Never-ending demands to work overtime took a toll on her health, she said. Under-staffing got so bad, she feared for her personal safety. 

She was assaulted by patients multiple times. The worst, she said, was when a male patient whipped her in the face with his catheter bag then pinned her up against the wall and tried to strangle her with his hands.

In recent months, New Brunswick’s Department of Health has made a series of announcements about new policies and initiatives aimed at increasing nurse recruitment. 

1,200 nurse vacancies

Measures include: expedited accreditation for internationally educated nurses, financial assistance to help cover extra expenses to integrate into the health system, and recruitment drives overseas, targeting India, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and French-speaking Europe.

From April 1, 2022, to March 31, 2023, Horizon says, it hired a total of 528 registered nurses, 337 licensed practical nurses and 523 personal care attendants. 

And yet, vacancies are rising, says Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, which represents 8,900 nurses, comprising registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners across the province. 

Her research shows the number of empty nursing jobs has reached 1,200, up from 1,000 in December. 

“Saying that they’re hiring every internationally educated nurse, or every graduate out of New Brunswick, that’s one thing,” said Doucet. “But if you’re not retaining the experience and the expertise in our system, we’re setting these junior, brand-new nurses up to fail.”

Doucet said it’s the nurses with 10 years of experience or more who are deciding to check out. 

Nursing ‘doesn’t seem to be getting better’

“Because they’re feeling slighted and disrespected on many fronts, particularly by our Higgs government,’ said Doucet.

She said other Atlantic Canadian provinces are doing a much better job at creating incentives to stay.

Nova Scotia nurses were awarded $10,000 retention bonuses, and health-care staff on P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador were also offered incentives to keep working. 

“They hear Newfoundland and Labrador and all of the incentives and all of the respect that they’re paying to the nurses in that province,” Doucet said of New Brunswick nurses.

“[They hear] from Premier King on Prince Edward Island and the announcements he’s made.” 

“On March 20, when Tim Houston, the premier of Nova Scotia talked about robust retention  incentives for nurses and how he had their back and how he wanted them to stay in Nova Scotia and how he would do everything in his power to do that. 

“Where was Premier Higgs saying those same things to the nurses of New Brunswick? I’ve yet to hear those words come out of his mouth.”

A woman with medium-length brown hair stands outside
Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, said her research shows the number of empty nursing jobs has reached 1,200, up from 1,000 in December. (Tori Weldon)

Gorham, who was frustrated by obstacles she faced, trying to upgrade from a licensed practical nurse to a registered nurse, says she enjoys learning the ropes of trucking. 

She feels there is an opportunity for personal growth, from seeing more of the continent, to learning new skills.

“I still talk to my nursing friends,” she said. “I do know they miss me.”

They also tell her turnover remains high. They say most of the staff members that Gorham knew are gone. 

“They said, ‘You’d know four people here.'” Gorham said. “It just doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”