Community care

They are former airline pilots, Olympic athletes, police recruits and liquor store managers. They've earned degrees ranging from kinesiology to biology, psychology and more, and yet they all have one thing in common – they're back at university to become nurses.

The University of Lethbridge's Bachelor of Nursing After Degree (BNAD) program attracts a diverse array of students, but the goal they share is the same – to contribute to the community by caring for its people.

"When the U of L introduced the BNAD program, it was perfect for me because I looked at it as an opportunity to invest two years and then get back to helping people," says 31-year-old Justin Gatner, a psychology grad who was managing a liquor store before he came back to the U of L.

Sarah Calnan
BNAD student, Sarah Calnan, works with a resident of Martha's House during a free clinic offered by the U of L program.

The Monarch, Alta. native was on a path to become a police officer, having also earned his criminal justice diploma from Lethbridge College, before a broken leg dashed his hopes of passing the physical requirements for the job.

"I reassessed my world and started looking around at other careers where I could still help people," says Gatner. "Some of the options included were fire fighting and working as an EMT, but nursing was also a part of that."

The BNAD program has many similar stories, graduate students who have acquired experience by being out in the workforce, and then turned their focus to nursing. One of the faculty members helping them achieve their goal is Em Pijl-Zieber, who, like her students, found community nursing after having taken a different path.

A registered nurse who previously worked in advanced practice, Pijl-Zieber never saw herself working in a community-nursing role, and as for teaching, she jokingly calls herself the "accidental professor".

"I never wanted to teach and yet I've found that it's really a lot of fun," says Pijl-Zieber, a Vancouver native who followed her husband and fellow faculty member, Mark, to Alberta. "To inspire students to greatness is always my hope. I want them to get passionate about something."

With Pijl-Zieber, students are able to take knowledge learned in the classroom into community settings. They now provide a unique level of care to homeless and marginalized populations, as well as seniors in assisted living residences.

One of the initiatives in which they are involved is a foot-care program that Pijl-Zieber began three years ago.

The program initially had her students involved with homeless persons utilizing Streets Alive, and has grown to where her students now participate in Project Homeless Connect, are active in visiting long-term care facilities in both Lethbridge and Coaldale, and will set up outpatient clinics for drop-in foot-care services.

"The work that students do during this course is often not bedside nursing, as much as it is program planning and population health promotion," says Pijl-Zieber. "By doing the foot-care clinics, students can have that interaction with members of the population. They like it because they can practice one-to-one care, something that's hands-on and practical. It's why they went into nursing in the first place – to do real things with real people."

Foot care is a real concern for homeless and marginalized populations. They generally have little access to health services, are constantly on their feet with inadequate footwear and may suffer from aggravating health concerns such as diabetes. Frostbite, ingrown toenails and other problems, if left untreated, can lead to amputations.

"Who else is going to look after their feet? Our goal is to be able to do a proper assessment and then to provide foot care so that hopefully they can keep their limbs attached," she says.

This past year, the foot-care program took her group into Martha's House seniors' residence.

"I've been very pleasantly surprised with what they've brought to us," says registered nurse Elda Barva, Martha's House administrator and the previous director of care at St. Michael's Hospital. "They are very motivated, they have some life experience behind them and they've come in here and taken this place by storm."

More than simply providing foot care clinics, the students created an entire health-care program for the facility, breaking off into four groups (health promotion, injury prevention, illness prevention and health maintenance) of focus.

"Em is phenomenal in creating a bunch of opportunities that we never really expected," says Sarah Calnan, a biology grad in her second year of BNAD.
"Our goal when we came here was to ensure that what we were doing was sustainable to the seniors in the future. We're hoping that everything each of our groups has worked towards, they can continue to do after we leave."

Calnan worked with the health maintenance group that created a health resource manual and facilitated a "Puzzled About Pills" seminar in which they helped seniors understand how to best manage the many medications they use.

Vicki Hughes, a kinesiology graduate, worked with the health promotion group. Their focus was to help seniors better utilize the exercise room, educate about fall prevention strategies and help implement a program designed around the new vibration wave machine that promotes better balance, strength and circulation.

"The main thing for me with this experience is that it has really prepared me for nursing in terms of improving my communication skills," says Hughes. "We came in here to assess their needs, and working with them and empowering them has been wonderful."

The BNAD program doesn't just teach nursing, it promotes the basic tenets of care and contributing to the betterment of a community.

"When we are given these kinds of opportunities to come and work with these people, we're basically practising that community element of nursing," says Gatner. "When you work with the nursing program inside the community rotation, it gets you out the front door and into the world, helping people. That's always what I've wanted to do."

This story first appeared in the Legend. For a full look at the January issue of the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.