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The way we were and are: Reflections on 45 years
Oct 02, 2019, By: Barb Shellian

The year 2019 marks a significant event for me—45 years as a registered nurse. A lifetime. I will attend the usual reunion activities in October, planned for a very attractive location—my home town. Nothing like saving on hotel and airfare.

All kidding aside, being an RN for this long results in reflection and contemplation about the way things used to be (the good old days and selective memory) and the way things are now. I want to share a glimpse of those reflections. For some of you reading this column, you may end up asking, “Are you joking?” For others, it will be a trip down memory lane.

Four decades ago, there was the expectation in many workplaces that when a physician entered the nursing station (where smoking was allowed), the nursing staff would stand up and give up their chairs—honestly! When the overhead page announced visiting hours were over, the nurses would round up all stray visitors—who were classified basically as strangers, and a barrier to getting the work done—and gleefully send them packing. Head nurses were fearsome heroes, not to be crossed, and they knew everything about every patient on a 40-bed unit.

Nursing in the community was a foreign country where only a few nurses dared to travel. Nursing skills were your ticket to success; if you could analyze and synthesize, but not catheterize, you were doomed. Research was mostly about nurses, not nursing practice. Political action meant that you quietly voted. My first and only letter of discipline that landed in my personnel file at the Canmore Hospital in 1975 was issued because I had allowed a father to come into the Case Room to watch his child being born—a definite breach of policy.

Progress in our profession

Over the years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to gain knowledge and experience, and watch my profession develop as changes happened to our world and our health care system. The gains that I have witnessed include interprofessional teams who work together as equals for the benefit of the patient and family.

I see nursing students who are active learners: smart, competent people who make me confident in the future.

Patient- and family-centred care that includes the patient and family as active participants in achievement of health.

Nurses as knowledge workers making a difference in hospitals, schools, communities, homes, workplaces—any setting where there are people.

Nurse practitioners providing primary care for thousands of Canadians.

Research as an integral part of nursing care, including evidenced-based practice and pursuit of knowledge through research.

Political action, which means action and advocacy. Influencing healthy public policy by speaking up and speaking out.

Nursing as the most trusted profession, which contributes to decision-making at the local and national levels.

Do I have regrets? Some of the changes happened too slowly for me, and we may have missed out on opportunities because we were hesitant to change too quickly. I continue to be disappointed in the dilution of the voice of nursing in large health systems, and many times wish for that fearsome head nurse to reappear. My regrets are tempered by the progress I have witnessed.

Advice to my younger self

As I reflect back on my career, I would tell my younger self four things that I have learned along the way:

  • Be prepared. Keep learning, and have a spirit of inquiry. Be ready to try a new career path or challenge. Nursing has the gift of many opportunities. Never overlook an open door because you don’t know what may be inside.
  • Be resilient. You may not always be successful in what you want to do, but there is an opportunity to learn even in failure. Recover, move on, and get over it.
  • Be relentless. Don’t give up on what you know to be the right thing to do. In most cases, change is incremental, not monumental. I have lived by the motto of relentless incrementalism. Whether it is for safe patient care, advancing the profession, or supporting the health of the nation—keep on it.
  • Be yourself. Be the best person you can be. Your patients and co-workers will support the authentic “you”—your foibles as well as your strengths.

I have been asked to give a speech at the reunion dinner, and there will be laughter and there will be tears. But when I look around the room, I will be reminded of the difference that we made for so many people over the course of time. That is the essence of why we chose nursing, and an example of where the heart of nursing resides—in service to others.

In 45 years, my career and experience have been exciting, full, and challenging. And I am not done yet.

Editor-in-chief Barb Shellian is a registered nurse committed to nursing practice, health care reform, and people. She is the immediate past president of the Canadian Nurses Association. She is also Director of Rural Health, Alberta Health Services—Calgary Zone and lives and works in Canmore, AB.