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Public Health Nurses – Every Day is Different

For over one hundred years, nurses have practiced in public health. The first public health nurses were in England. The United States and Canada started using nurses in public health in the early 1900’s.

Public health nurses practice in a “setting without walls” as the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario puts it. They are anywhere their clients are in schools, workplaces, homes, community agencies, community clinics, on the phone and they all work to promote health and prevent disease.

“A typical day?” says Public Health Nurse in Family Health, Lynda Burville, “There are no typical days, every day is different. And even if I have my day planned, sometimes I end up not doing anything I expected to do.” Burville’s comment is echoed by other nurses at the Health Unit. Her days may include teaching prenatal classes, staffing a well-baby drop-in, meeting with teachers, principals or students at schools, or sitting on an inter-agency committee.

Agreeing with her colleague about the lack of a typical day, Joanne Alessi, Injury Prevention PHN, notes that public health challenges one’s nursing skills. Her day may include a radio interview about a local issue, running a CHAT (Communities and Hospitals Against Trauma) program at a local high school, or discussing safe footwear for prevention of falls with seniors.

The work of the public health nurse sometimes appears invisible. Judith Hayman, Public Health Nurse and Lactation Consultant with Family Health, agrees there is truth in that. “Nursing is not what we do with our hands; it is about the mental process that directs our actions. Whether doing a bedside skill, or talking with a suicidal teenager or chairing a committee on health concerns, it is the brain that assesses the situation and decides what to do and how to do it. Nursing is what goes on between your ears.”

Thinking and knowing what to say are part and parcel of Marg Wilson’s day. Wilson is a nurse in Communicable Disease, which handles infections – there are sixty-six of them that must be reported to the province and followed for prevention of spread. To further prevent infection public education is also a key part of her job. Somewhat related, the Vaccine Preventable Disease team is in charge of keeping track of school immunisation records, running immunization clinics, and supplying vaccines to physicians’ offices and hospital. This team also uses the welcome skills of several clinical nurses on a casual basis.

Jayne Holmes and Terri Hartwick serve in the Sexual Health Clinics, counselling teens and adults. Their scope involves counselling about birth control, pregnancy choices and STD testing. Their hard work helps to keep the teen pregnancy below that of Ontario as a whole, and well below that of the five neighbouring health units.

For Lynne Larway, with the Healthy Babies, Healthy Children Program, work is “Babies. Babies. More Babies.” Larway is a part of the team that provides phone calls and home visits to parents of newborns. She loves the small luxury of time to relate to the clients in their own setting, and, with some clients, being able to establish a long-term relationship.

Many of the nurses represent the Health Unit on community committees, creating partnerships with local agencies, organization and businesses. From these committees comes the opportunity to define local issues, which leads to programs customized for the local community. They are also the opportunity for making others aware of health issues.

The diversity of work and the relevance of committees are also noted by Healthy Babies, Healthy Children Program Manager, RoseAnne Maracle Ringuette. A nurse for over thirty years, she moved into management nineteen years ago, to further challenge herself. One of those challenges is interpreting the guidelines laid down by the various ministries that govern public health and translating them into programs that work in Haldimand and Norfolk.

At the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit, there are approximately 30 nurses, full-time, part-time and casual. The jobs they do are as diverse as the thirty individuals. The casual nurses work primarily with immunization clinics held during the fall. The rest are front line staff and managers.

Patti Moore, the General Manager Health and Social Services for Haldimand and Norfolk Counties, is also a nurse who still feels strongly connected with nursing. Moore, who was at one time a public health nurse with the health unit, says, “I don’t think many people realize just how well a BScN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) prepares you to go in so many directions.” She notes that the nursing skills of assessing, communication, problem solving, teamwork and evaluation fit perfectly with her current position.

For all these nurses, the important aspect of the job is making a difference in the lives of individuals, families, and the community. They work with a full range of the community and all social and economic levels.

Each year, nurses around the world celebrate Nurses’ Week, timed to honour the birth date of the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale. Nightingale is renowned for her nursing care as “the lady with the lamp” in the Crimean War, and as the founder of modern nursing. Later in life, she also made important advances to the science of public health, providing the hard data that proved the connection between living conditions and disease.

For more information, contact:
RoseAnne Maracle Ringuette, Chief Nursing Officer
Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit
905-318-5367 ext 305 or [email protected]