Mixing nursing and politics for the good of our health

January 2009   Comments

As a child, Sandra Gardiner was always the first to grab the ice pack or a bandage when one of her younger siblings was hurt; she’d had nursing ambitions since she was five years old. It was, however, never in her sights to run for public office. But that’s exactly what the Stratford, Ont., RN did in last fall’s federal election, as the Liberal candidate for Perth-Wellington. 

Gardiner’s journey to nursing, and then political involvement, began on the other side of the world. Her parents met in India on a compound for foreign workers and then moved to Germany, where Gardiner was born. In 1982, when she was 10, her family immigrated to Canada, moving to Simcoe. It was her weekend and summer work in the family’s motel and campground business that earned Gardiner the money for post-secondary education. It was fate that took her to Stratford; her application to the Kitchener campus of Conestoga College was sent to the Stratford campus by mistake. Nonetheless, she stayed on in the city, graduating in 1994 with a diploma in nursing.

It was a time of massive layoffs in the profession, and, like many new nurses, Gardiner worked part time at several jobs in community agencies. She signed on for part-time work with her current employer, South West Community Care Access Centre (CCAC), in 1998, after one of the community agencies was taken over by a for-profit corporation — a move she did not agree with.

Gardiner has worked full time for the provincially funded agency since 2001. For the past three years, she has been a community case manager with a rural caseload that deals predominantly with seniors. “I absolutely love working in the community. You get to see an entirely different side of people in their home and what’s going on with them. I love problem-solving and being challenged — though I might not say that every day.”

In one of Gardiner’s first positions at CCAC, she worked with a school health program for medically fragile children. Because of her knowledge in this area, she was asked to sit on a planning committee to establish a respite home in Stratford for children with complex medical needs. Rotary Respite House was the result. Her community volunteer work continues. She currently serves on the North Perth Violence Against Women Advisory Committee and on the board of Optimism Place, Perth County’s only women’s shelter. She is a member of many organizations, including the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment; Common Action for the Restoration of the Environment, Stratford; FarmGate5, a group that believe in maintaining a strong agricultural centre and a prosperous food industry in Ontario; and Autism Ontario.

“Social issues are important to me,” explains Gardiner. “When you find out that your clients are using the food bank and struggling to pay for their prescriptions, you realize there are a lot of things that the general public doesn’t know. If people could afford proper nutrition and their prescriptions, health care would be much less expensive. That’s my nurse’s brain at work, looking at the entire picture — the environment and all of the factors that go into health.”

Gardiner’s ability to look at the big picture makes her well suited to politics, but it was a situation much closer to home that spurred her into the political arena. In 2004, her children (now eight and six) were attending a municipal daycare centre. One evening the centre was abuzz with talk that the city council was going to shut down the program because of the cost. “It was literally a conversation with a couple of parents in the hallway that was my launch into politics,” laughs Gardiner. “I was determined we were not going to let council get away with shutting us down.”

Along with a number of other parents, she began a campaign to keep the centre open, hosting a public meeting, sending representatives to present the case to council, collecting signatures. Their campaign was a success, and the experience got Gardiner thinking about the shortage of licensed child care centres across the region. She became involved with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care and started up a local chapter. “I wanted to keep up the pressure.”

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