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October 14, 2010

Region marks Emergency Nurses Week

Every day, about 900 people visit an Emergency Department in the Winnipeg Health Region, seeking help for a wide range of health issues that run the gamut from injuries to illness.

But whether someone comes in with a cut on the foot from an errant skate blade or a broken leg suffered in a car accident, they can always count on one thing: there will always be an Emergency Department nurse waiting to provide care, comfort and support.

It is this dedication and commitment to care that is celebrated during Emergency Nurses Week, which takes place Oct. 10 to 16. This year's theme is "Making a Difference Every Day."

And that is precisely what Emergency nurses strive to do, often under difficult circumstances. The pace inside an Emergency Department is fast, and the challenges can be overwhelming, says Karen Dunlop, Regional Director of the Winnipeg Health Region's Emergency Program. Nurses must be able to deliver patient-centred, timely support to patients during what is often the biggest crisis in their lives.

"It takes intelligence, training, knowledge and strength of character to be able to work under the pressures put on Emergency nurses," says Dunlop. "They have to be able to establish a relationship quickly with strangers, be able to work as part of an inter-disciplinary health team, and juggle competing demands."

Emergency Departments at the seven hospitals in the Winnipeg Health Region often act as a canary in a coal mine, says Dunlop.

"If there is a new health crisis in the community, like the H1N1 flu last year, the Emergency Departments are often the first to see people with the symptoms," she says. "Emergency nurses are often the first point of contact most people have with the hospital and the health care system. We often don't take the time to recognize the excellent work they do, so this week is our chance to do just that."

If there's one thing Emergency nurses have in common, it's their love of the fast-pace and challenge that every day brings to their work in hospital emergency departments.

Both Ellen Gilbert, a 30-year nurse at the Victoria General Hospital, and Erin James, a relatively new RN at St. Boniface General Hospital, list the challenge of working with patients as the part they enjoy the most in their job.

Gilbert is a clinical resource nurse at the Victoria General Hospital, having done one year as a general nurse, followed by six years in intensive care and the rest in the Emergency Department. Her entire career has been at the Victoria, which has been a central part of her life since she was a child. Her father was the architect who drew the plans for the current hospital building.

"Working here is always different every day, and certainly never boring. The work calls into play your critical thinking skills and ability to work with a team of health care professionals," says Gilbert. "Bedside work is my favourite. We see everything from sprained ankles to trauma, psychiatric cases and people who need to be stabilized before being sent to surgery."

Gilbert has seen both technology and techniques change over the years. When she began in 1980, nurses had to do general ward work before applying to work in an emergency department. Today, nursing graduates can begin work in an Emergency Department immediately. And there are other changes.

"Patients used to smoke right in their rooms. There were little metal ashtrays everywhere. Nurses smoked at the desk," she says. "It went from that to just smoking at the desk, then in the cafeteria, and now only off the property. I'm quite happy to see that change."

On the other hand, James doesn't have a long history of Emergency Department visits to track how things have changed. In fact, she almost never had to make the trip to Emergency before she became a registered nurse.

"I've never been a patient in emergency. So everything was very new to me," says James, who graduated from St. Boniface College 6 1/2 years ago and who has been working at St. Boniface Hospital ever since.

"I love that every shift is different. We see everyone from pediatrics to geriatrics and all those in between," she says, adding that she works a late afternoon shift. "Contrary to what people think, Monday nights are the busiest. I guess it's because people injure themselves on the weekend, and the injury doesn't get better, so they show up on Mondays."

James took her bachelor degree through correspondence with the University of Ottawa, and completed her RN work in French through St. Boniface College. She is bilingual, which helps when working in a bilingual community.

"I can't see myself doing anything calmer. At the end of the day, we made a critical difference in the lives of the people who come into emergency. It might start with giving them a warm blanket in the waiting room, and letting them know we're watching out for them," she says. "We know that people are not feeling well, and it's our job to help them figure out what is wrong and to help them get better."

For more on emergency nurses in Canada see the National Emergency Nurses Affiliation website.

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