Apr 29, 2019
By Laura Eggertson

The sky’s the limit

Teckles Photography Inc.Flight nurse Sarah Painter

Flight nurse Sarah Painter has flown hundreds of helicopter missions with the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS) Air Ambulance team that is based in Winnipeg. It is through this complex, dynamic safety-critical role that her quest for the future direction of patient safety was sparked.

An important step on this journey is completion of a master of science degree in human factors and system safety, through a distance-learning program at Sweden’s Lund University. Painter believes that involving direct care nurses in safety planning is crucial.

“Nurses working in clinical practice — an area that I remain committed to — are the safety solution of the future.”

She might not have said that a decade ago when she began her career, but today she feels she has a true understanding of the expertise and influence of nurses working at the sharp end. She wants that understanding to be widely embraced.

“Direct care nurses balance extraordinary complexity, allowing our system to stretch and adapt to demands it otherwise wouldn’t accommodate. They understand what works. The more they’re empowered to create safety solutions, the more relevant and functional those solutions will be in practice.”

The STARS team is dispatched to 911 emergency calls for scene response to assist at highway motor vehicle collisions, structure fires, medical emergencies or remote calls for hard to access areas. They may also be in action at rural hospitals preparing intensive care patients for transfer to tertiary care. In the helicopter’s tiny intensive care unit, Painter, together with her paramedic partner, performs point-of-care ultrasound, needle decompression, intubations, blood transfusions and other life-saving practices.

“Regardless of where we’re dispatched, the information available to me is often limited, and I’m working alongside an interdisciplinary team of first responders or facility staff I may not be familiar with. It is the most challenging work I have ever done. And it inspired me to think more deeply about what creates safety in the broader health system.”

She rarely learns about the outcomes for the patients, and can’t spend the time with them, or their families, that she did in her five years as an emergency department nurse. Painter worked at Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital and the Health Sciences Centre children’s ED before joining the STARS team.

“If you spend eight hours with a patient and their family, you can generate a personal relationship,” she says. “It’s something that I miss.”

Teckles Photography Inc.

The value of coupling compassionate care with technical skill is what drew her to the profession. Although both her aunt, Marilyn, and her mother, Vivian, are nurses, as a teenager Painter wasn’t initially interested in following in their footsteps. Then, at 20, she watched nurses expertly administer chemotherapy to her father, who had terminal stomach cancer.

“They provided a bridge between this very complex medical system and caring for the human spirit,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

Her sister Stephanie also became a nurse after their father’s illness, working in oncology like their mother. Although it grieved Painter that her father didn’t live to see her acceptance letter arrive from the University of Manitoba’s college of nursing, she’s comforted by knowing that, like his nurses, she is supporting people on the most difficult days of their lives.

“There’s a huge meaning in that, even if the story doesn’t end well,” she says.

Those outcomes are the toughest part of the job, but Painter relies on a well-established routine to prevent burnout and maintain good mental health. It includes sessions with a debriefing team and a strict policy of consuming no alcohol for at least 24 hours after responding to a difficult scene.

“I exercise regularly, and I have friends I work with whom I speak with on a regular basis and a counsellor on hand…to make sure I bring my best self to my job.”

Spending time with her partner, Aaron, and his two children, cooking vegan food, travelling and snowboarding adds vibrancy and balance to her life. As a change of pace — and as a nod to her heritage — she volunteers each summer as camp nurse at Icelandic Camp in Gimli, Man.

From the moment she began her undergrad studies, Painter knew she wanted to participate in larger conversations about nursing and understand its influence on the health system. Engaging in student leadership with the Canadian Nursing Students’ Association (she served as its president from 2007 to 2009) grew out of her conviction that she needed as big a view of the profession and as many perspectives on leadership as she could get.

She believes that getting nurses involved in their professional associations early on is key to them developing a strong voice and learning to raise issues of direct concern to them. “We need involvement from more direct care nurses, in particular,” she says, “to ensure that professional associations are representative, relevant and powerful.”

Painter has just concluded a three-year director position with the Association of Registered Nurses of Manitoba, an organization she helped establish. She continues to chair its Emerging Leaders Network, which focuses on early engagement and empowerment strategies for students and new nurses.

“Nursing’s greatest opportunity is to boldly claim our professional expertise and use our voice unapologetically. The power has always been in our hands. It’s time to reach out and take hold of it.”

10 questions with Sarah Painter

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?

As a goal-oriented, outgoing person, I’ve left a few situations where I didn’t feel I made enough space for others.

What are you most proud of having accomplished?

Travelling, applying for positions I didn’t feel good enough for, enrolling in a master’s program. Each of these feats was terrifying but changed my life for the better.

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?

I had a brief career as a sheep farmer in Iceland. I can actually shear them for wool, although, admittedly, it’s not my most natural talent. If the sheep could talk, I bet they would’ve told me to stick to nursing.

“If I had more free time, I would...”

Read more to the kids. Soon will come the day where they stop asking to curl up together for stories.

Name the one place in the world you’d most like to visit.

That changes every year, but Santorini has been on my list for almost a decade.

What is your biggest regret?

Entering new experiences and feeling reluctant to grab them boldly with both hands.

What was the last good book you read?

Behind Human Error by David Woods, Sidney Dekker, Richard Cook, Leila Johannesen and Nadine Sarter

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?

Diplomacy, always. It is the only way to get the job done. I try to model the behaviour I want to see in the world: kindness, respect, consideration, giving the benefit of the doubt.

What is the best thing about your current job?

It’s pretty incredible to do work where I get to see so many complex pieces coming together and how many dedicated people bring it to life. Also, I get to fly in a helicopter. Every day.

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.

See more R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I’ve been in so many situations with health-care professionals that have involved rude, unprofessional or cruel behaviour. These dynamics threaten patient safety and affect morale.

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa, Ont.
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