The first national strike of NHS nurses in the U.K. is about to kick off this week after the government refused to negotiate with nurse leaders on pay. Ministers argued that they didn’t have the power to change salaries decided by the independent pay body for NHS staff. Around 100,000 nurses from all over the country are planning to walk off the job on December 15 and December 20.
Pat Cullen is the woman orchestrating the demonstration behind the scenes. She has faced her fair share of difficult working conditions over the years, but the experiences helped prepare her for what could be the defining moment of her career.
She started working in the field nearly 40 years ago when she was 18 years old. She was a trainee nurse at Holywell psychiatric hospital in Antrim, Northern Ireland and said the way they were asked to treat the patients was abhorrent.
She was appalled that the staff would be made to punish patients who exhibited difficult behavior by taking away their possessions, including sweets, cigarettes, washbags, and even blankets.
“I felt it was totally unfair,” Cullen explained to The Guardian. “These people were ill; they had mental health problems. And some of these things that were withdrawn from them were very personal. I just felt that was such an injustice. Patients on the wards couldn’t cope without their own personal belongings.”
She eventually shared her concerns with the hospital management. She said her supervisors softened without totally scrapping the policy. “I think I did win it; I felt great about it,” she said looking back. “I felt so brilliant for those patients.”
Cullen went on to become the Royal College of Nursing’s director in Northern Ireland where she led the first strike in the RNC’s 103-year history.
“Nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland had fallen 10 years behind that of a nurse anywhere else in the UK,” recalls Cullen. “That for me was an injustice too far.”
The RNC eventually won the standoff, securing not just better pay but also the introduction of safe staffing protocols to protect nurses.
And now she is getting ready to hit the streets again, this time over nurses’ salaries. Nurses across the NHS are having trouble making ends meet due to high inflation and low pay.
Cullen is the youngest of seven children, including six girls and one boy. They were raised on a farm as part of a large family. But five of the seven children became nurses. Cullen said she decided to get into healthcare after watching her older sister Birdie, 17 years her senior, get her first job helping patients.
“I remember her coming home in her beautiful nurse’s uniform talking passionately to us as a young family about what she’d been doing on her last shift,” Cullen says. “I remember thinking, even at that young age, it was just incredible how much she was able to touch people’s lives.”
She doesn’t have a lot of free time these days now that she is preparing to lead what could be the largest strike in U.K. history. If she does have a moment to relax, you will find her making dresses with her sewing machine or visiting the eastern coast.
“I’m hardworking. I have a really wicked sense of humor. That gets me through. And I’m tenacious. I’m definitely tenacious. When I believe in something I’ll follow it through to the bitter end, I absolutely will.”