MONTREAL -- Operating-room nurses at Lakeshore Hospital staged a sit-in Tuesday morning, saying they’ve been made to work nearly around the clock and want to refuse a move to further skeleton staffing.

One of the protesting nurses described being made to work nearly 48 hours in a row, and that was under the current, more robust staff schedule, she said.

“I’ve had to work 22 hours in a row, and after sleeping two hours, had to be functioning for another [almost] 24 hours of work,” said the nurse, who didn’t want her name published.

“That’s unsafe.”

Other nurses at Lakeshore have staged sit-ins before, including one in September 2020, but the small group of operating-room nurses hasn't done so until now.

Their workload during the pandemic hasn’t quite tracked with many of their colleagues’ experiences, the nurse explained.

For OR nurses, the workload began to shoot skywards during summer 2020, when COVID-19 cases eased off -- doctors then began frantically trying to work through their ever-lengthening surgery backlogs.

It hasn’t eased since, and Lakeshore’s operating rooms have been a microcosm of what Health Minister Christian Dubé, and health staff unions, have described: burnout has led people to quit, which has further added to the strain of those remaining.

Now, Lakeshore has told its remaining OR nurses—roughly 18 of them—that some in the group will be seconded to the intensive care unit as it prepares for a fourth wave of COVID-19.

The sit-in was a last resort, the nurse said, to tell the hospital the group had reached their breaking point and can’t afford to lose any more colleagues to early retirement, resignation or simply to other units of the hospital.

One woman at Lakeshore quit suddenly last week in light of the news of the staff shuffle, the nurse said, and two are planning to do the same this week.

Minister Dubé said earlier this month that the province as a whole is short more than 4,000 nurses.

“We're playing catch-up [after] a year of being run-down,” she said.

“We have waiting lists that have gone up to one and two years, the doctors are pushing us, we're trying to help... we're being run ragged.”

Lakeshore management announced last week it would be closing two of its four ORs, though it didn’t explain that the move was primarily to free up precious nurses.

“We must address the increase in COVID-19 cases in intensive care, which are currently under high demand, and increase our capacity,” said a spokesperson for the Ouest-de-l’Ile health district.

“To meet this high volume of traffic, we had to temporarily close two operating rooms at the Lakeshore General Hospital, in order to redirect staff to intensive care where the need is great.”

NO TIME FOR BATHROOM BREAKS, FOOD

The nurse who spoke to CTV said that the problem is that surgeries continue at full speed in the remaining open operating rooms.

“They’re compensating by running the one OR all weekend and often at night,” she said.

Another problem is that OR nurses normally get six months’ extra training and several more months on the job before they’re self-sufficient.

“We can't get anybody from the float team, we can't get anybody… from a [staffing] agency, because it's a highly specialized unit.”

The Lakeshore group frequently now work for most of their shifts without food, and sometimes can’t take bathroom breaks, said the nurse.

The spokesperson, Hélène Bergeron-Gamache, said the hospital knows how hard things are on the nurses and are trying to “work closely” with them and the unions to find solutions.

“We are aware that the situation is difficult for our staff, who have been mobilized since the very beginning of the pandemic,” she said.

She said the hospital wanted to take advantage of the media coverage “to thank them" publicly.

The nurse who spoke to CTV said there must be another way than further whittling down their group. At the sit-in, the OR nurses planned to refuse to get into their uniforms and sit down, also refusing to work, at 7:30 a.m., until management spoke to them.

“We all understand,” she said. “People everywhere are tired and exhausted and burnt out… but they're trying to solve one crisis by creating another.”

But the overwork has seeped into the rest of her life, causing her to have a “very short temper” with her children and to “lash out at my husband, because doctors don't take it so well when you lash out at them,” she said.

“You come to that breaking point where you can't take it anymore.”

When asked what came of any talks on Tuesday, Bergeron-Gamache said the situation changes daily.

“Like other hospitals in Quebec, the situation is changing rapidly at the Lakeshore General Hospital depending on the occupancy rate,” she wrote.

“Our teams assess the organization of care on a daily basis in order to offer quality services to our population.”

This is a developing story that will be updated.