CHICAGO (WLS) -- Nurses are the backbone of the health care system -- a system that has been severely tested over the last year and a half by the pandemic.
Now, the nursing profession, which was already stretched before the pandemic, is now in greater demand than ever before.
"When you leave work every day, crying...I just couldn't stay anymore," said registered nurse Tiffany Barnes.
Barnes was a nurse for 18 years, most recently she treated COVID patients until leaving the hospital setting a month ago.
She estimates a third of the other nurses she worked with left as well. All burned out by the constant stress of the pandemic.
Kelly Cachoeira is still working with COVID patients, and said it takes a physical and emotional toll.
"Sometimes, you're talking to families and you know the person is sick and is not going to make it," Cachoeira said.
Many hospitals are now offering incentives, like signing bonuses, in an effort to attract and hire nurses.
Iman Abuzeid's company, Incredible Health, helps hospitals find and recruit them.
"When you're overworked, many nurses are opting to retire or leave the profession altogether," Abuzeid said.
Abuzeid said the shortage is only likely to get worse in the next couple of years, as about 20%of active nurses are expected to retire in the next five years.
Christine Carsten just recently called it a career.
"Nurses on the unit are really, really, struggling," she said.
With healthcare now the largest sector of the labor force, experts said the biggest challenge is not only to attract more people to the nursing profession, but also increasing capacity at nursing schools to educate them.
Hospitals offer incentives, signing bonus amid nurse shortage due to COVID burnout