Into the frying pan
Northern nursing experience is life changing

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

NNSL (July 05/99) - After 30 years as a nurse in Ottawa, Jean Benton decided it was time for a new challenge.

To upgrade her skills, she joined the nurse practitioner program and ended up in Fort Good Hope.

"I've learned to have confidence in myself as an advance practice nurse. If I was younger and not married, I'd definitely be up in the North working at a health station," Benton said after her six-week practicum.

"I don't know what the community would do without the nurses there. They provide easily 90 per cent of all health care in the community."

For Benton, the Fort Good Hope experience was one part of a year-long course that allowed her to upgrade her skills to become a licensed advanced practice nurse. That means she is now able to diagnose, treat and prescribe medication to patients.

The situations she dealt with were wide-ranging, which is why she felt the experience was so valuable.

She recalls a young man coming in with acute abdominal pain and having to decide whether to medevac him out or not.

Another time, a young child came in with a dislocated shoulder. Part of the treatment was to secure a sandbag to the arm of the patient to straighten the shoulder out.

Benton said handling people with muscle and tendon lacerations, psycho-social problems -- anything you can think of, is everyday practice. Often in the smaller communities, doctors only come through once a month.

"The nurses have to manage more because they are absolutely the front-line. We have to draw support from each other," Benton said.

"I always tell young nurses they should go up North because they will get experience they can't get anywhere else. I think it's the opportunity of a lifetime."

Benton is one of eight nurse practitioners from Ontario who enjoyed practicums in small Northern communities. Because there is currently a nursing shortage, there is a drive on to get nurses into the North. It's all part of the Recruitment and Retention Strategy, administered by the Department of Health and Social Services.

Recruitment and Retention Strategy consultant Anne Whittaker said the practicum students they entice up here may or may not return, but most enjoy the experience and spread the word that the North is a vibrant and exciting place to work.

"We need to be competitive, but not only in the area of monetary compensation. We're not only competing for nurses nationally, there's a global shortage of nurses," Whittaker said.

"Because we're in a crisis situation, this strategy is incredibly important."

Whittaker said to maintain a basic level of health-care services, you have to have a certain amount of staff available at all times. She said long-term solutions are being looked at because the shortage of nurses is not going to change in the next few years.

"We need to get the message out that the NWT is an attractive place to live and work," she said.

"For a nurse from the south, it does mean a move into a whole new lifestyle, but it's a lifestyle that brings satisfactions and life experiences that can be gained nowhere else in Canada."