University of Calgary

In their own words: Four nursing students share experiences from front lines

UToday HomeJuly 29, 2013

From left: Fabio Lacentra, Laura Douglas, Ashleigh Tan, and Paul Sumpton all volunteered at evacuation centres after flooding affected thousands of southern Albertans.From left: Fabio Lacentra, Laura Douglas, Ashleigh Tan, and Paul Sumpton all volunteered at evacuation centres after flooding affected thousands of southern Albertans.The power of the simple phrase, “How are you doing today?” means a lot more today to Ashleigh Tan, Paul Sumpton, Fabio Lacentra and Laura Douglas following their experiences as nursing students working with victims of the 2013 flood. 

All four were in their practicums in High River and Okotoks – when news of the fast-rising waters reached them. Unable to return to their placements for a couple of weeks, they volunteered at the university residence's evacuation centre and at Ambrose University College. Below are their reflections on the past month:

Ashleigh: I was involved in well-baby clinics at the High River Public Health Office and did home visits with new moms as well. On Thursday, June 20, I was in the middle of a clinic when my classmate came in and told me that I should move my car as the river was coming down the street! The next couple of hours were a little frantic say the least. I personally had never been in a situation like that before, so it was definitely eye-opening and the experience gave me some insight into what nurses might do in a crisis situation.

I volunteered with my clinical group at the evacuation centre in Yamnuska Hall. While I was there, I helped a gentleman who had been evacuated from the East Village and who was in the process of being transferred to the gym at Central High School. He was in need of some clothes and I was able to find him pants, a couple of shirts, clean underwear, socks and toiletries. He was extremely grateful and said to me — in tears — that it finally felt like the universe had turned around. I think that particular experience has stuck with me because until then I didn't completely understand the impact of the floods, and it made me fully appreciate that many people had literally lost everything. I can’t imagine not having access to things like clean underwear or a toothbrush so it really brought it home for me.

Paul: I was just coming back from a home visit and passed over one of the bridges over the Sheep River; 45 minutes later that bridge was closed. Nearby in Turner Valley there was a hydrogen sulphide gas leak and the Okotoks Wellness Centre was in an emergency Code Orange state. The head nurse had me looking up what the effects of hydrogen sulphide gas poisoning are, the signs, degrees of toxicity and the treatments. 

The first day at the university residences, I helped conduct needs assessments and we discovered a high-risk pregnancy, people without blood pressure medication, and some who were not coping effectively with being evacuated. What stood out most to me was how something so simple as just asking, "How are you doing?" gave me a wealth of information about people. Many were just so thankful that someone had taken an interest in them. After a couple days at the residences, I started to get to know people more and they expressed how thankful they were for my help. It really resonated with me and my desire to work in health care. It felt good knowing that I had a made a difference in people's lives when they were experiencing such a difficult transition.

Laura: My practicum was in Okotoks, where I live and while, thankfully, my family was not affected by the flood, I do know people who were.  

I did two years in the Faculty of Science, but chose to switch into nursing because I was really interested in the hands-on aspect of learning and I really got to do just that, volunteering at the university and at Ambrose College. It was very interesting to see what a difference you can make by just listening to people and hearing their stories. It really made me realize how rewarding it is to help people, even in small ways, and makes me grateful that I chose this career.

Fabio: I came to the nursing program with a degree in Kinesiology after many years of working in health care and in many diverse environments, including humanitarian assistance overseas and the B.C. fires in 2003. My practicum at the Okotoks Urgent Care Centre allowed for a rich experience in new baby home visits, well-baby clinics, travel and lactation clinics. On the day of the floods, sporadic rumours of flooding in High River began to circulate. We continued with our work for the most part until we realized the severity of the situation and discussions turned towards getting back to Calgary safely.

Volunteering at the university really opened my eyes to how compassionate and understanding my fellow nursing students are and how they are totally adaptable to many situations that require more than just the hard nursing skills. Personally, I had not had much experience dealing with the homeless and that required me to develop a new communication style. I also found myself becoming a patient advocate for someone whose situation was quite complex, and also using my Spanish to help some people with English as their second language: this was a common thread among the displaced people. My most meaningful interaction was on the last day when we happened to come upon a person in great difficulty with a teenage son threatening suicide. We were able to intervene and bring the resources to assist in the situation. 

I have often advocated to fellow students that nursing is 80 per cent listening and 20 per cent caring. In the end I would say that it’s 80 per cent listening, a lot of caring and situational complexity that far exceeds 100 per cent. I am truly looking forward to giving more than 100 per cent in my future practice.

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