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nursing thumb medium90 93Sunday Times reports that as a child, Charmaine de Villiers would nurse sick animals. After being retrenched, Charlotte Petersen-Davids became a nurse at the age of 51.  Both women became nurses in the public sector but a single item of clothing — a sleeveless jacket called a gilet — has stopped them from living their dream.

They were dismissed from Karl Bremer Hospital in Cape Town after refusing to remove the gilet at work because they said it made them feel comfortable and look neat. It has been two years since their dismissal but they have refused to stop fighting for their jobs.

Soon De Villiers, a mother of two, will take her fight to the Labour Court in Cape Town.

According to the women, only managers were allowed to wear the gilet at the Bellville hospital. Both had worked at nearby Tygerberg Hospital where the gilet was part of their uniform.

When De Villiers — a specialist ICU nurse and a former lecturer who was instrumental in setting up the ICU for the maternity unit at Tygerberg — refused to stop wearing her gilet she was charged with gross insubordination, refusing to adhere to the uniform dress code, non-adherence to infection control principles and “rudeness” among other things.

“I wrote policies for Tygerberg Hospital and guidelines. But here I sit without a job. I can’t find work in the public sector because of the charges that were brought against me,” said the 51-year-old, who relies on her twin sister Charlene Adams — also a nurse — for financial support.

“We are grown women and not that slender any more. The gilet covers up certain places on a woman’s body . . . you get rude men,” said Petersen-Davids.

Nurse Clive Jonas, from the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union who is assisting the women, said there was no national uniform policy for nurses. There are guidelines and government nurses receive a subsidy to buy their own uniforms, including a gilet.

When De Villiers’s matter went to arbitration last year, commissioner Teresa Erasmus found that the Karl Bremer Hospital’s uniform policy stipulated that staff nurses may not wear a gilet as it was seen as “an extra risk in clinical areas”.

Erasmus wrote in her finding that the then head of nursing at Karl Bremer had told De Villiers “a clean uniform must be put on every day in the best interest of the patients, as they work with patients with open wounds”.

De Villiers testified that there is no evidence that a uniform or gilet spreads infection. She highlighted the importance of proper hand-washing and told the Sunday Times this week she always wore a clean gilet and would remove it or use protective clothing such as an apron, gloves or disposable shoes if necessary.

The provincial nursing manager, Volene Werely, testified in support of De Villiers at the arbitration hearing. She said the department could have managed the situation better.

Dr Edward Langenegger, who worked with De Villiers at Tygerberg to reduce maternal mortality, also testified that the dismissal was unfair. But Erasmus found against her.

“The policy was reasonable, especially bearing the safety of patients in clinical areas in mind and the danger of infections,” said Erasmus.

Mark van der Heever, spokesman for the provincial health department, said this week: “The nurses were not dismissed because they wore gilets but because they refused to abide by a departmental policy and instruction — determined by their operational [clinical] environment.”

Petersen-Davids, 63, said she qualified as a nurse after obtaining her matric when she was 48, and started working at Karl Bremer in 2014.

“I lost the education policies I had for my two grandchildren,” she said. “I am very disappointed. I believe a job is not a favour, it is a basic right because we are contributing towards the economy. Why dismiss us? There are other ways of dealing with the situation instead of taking our jobs away. When you lose your job it is almost like a death in the family because you are taking away something someone loved.”

De Villiers broke down in tears. “I was born to do this. They took so much from me,” she said.

Adams said becoming nurses had been a dream come true for her and her sister.

“We were five years old and nursing was all we wanted to do. When we found a bird with a broken leg we would mend it. I will do whatever it takes to support her in her fight,” she said.

The original of this report by Nashira Davids appeared on page 8 of The Sunday Times of 15 April 2018

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