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Spotlight on alumni

Debbie Forward is the current president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses Union and twice a Memorial graduate. With degrees in nursing and educational psychology, Ms. Forward is a passionate advocate for nursing profession and the crucial role nurses play in the health system. Here is a recent conversation she had with our contributor Bojan Fürst.

BF: Tell me about Debbie Forward.
DF: I was born in St. John’s. Lived here all my life. I decided at a fairly young age I wanted to be a nurse. I don’t even know where that thought came from. I do have a sister who is a nurse and she is two years older than me so she might have been some influence. I decided to go to Memorial and do my nursing education there. I enjoyed my time at MUN tremendously. When I graduated I went to work at the Grace General hospital. I worked in emergency there for five years, and than decided to move to the school of nursing at the Grace so I taught at the school for 11 years before I was elected as the president of the Nurses’ Union.

BF: You said that nursing always felt right. What drew you to nursing? What kept you in it?
DF: I think it was caring for people and the ability to make a difference in people’s lives. Some of my greatest memories are about the quiet moments with patients, with family, holding a hand, just saying “Is everything all right?” because they don’t appear to be all right. And then you find that something significant has happened and then being there to support them through that. That’s what nurses do and the value of that is so tremendous. I did have one small moment where I thought maybe I wanted to be a doctor. I actually went back to the university and started to do a course and I was part way through it and I gave my head a shake. [laughter]. What am I doing here. I can do everything that I want to do in my life as a nurse. I quit the course. Never looked back.

BF: I have a perception that nursing has been changing. Is that perception correct?
DF: It is correct. The nursing has evolved, I think positively. There is no doubt that in the ‘50s, ‘60s and even early ‘70s nurses were perceived as servants to physicians. The expectations were that if a physician walked into a room, you stood up and gave the physician your chair, you were handmaidens. Nurses are still working against being perceived as being servants and not having their own profession, their own body of knowledge, their own role within the health care. We have certainly come a long way in that.

BF: What do you see as milestones when it comes to changes in the nursing profession?
DF: I do believe the critical milestones were in the ‘70s when nursing moved into university-type education. It then became more recognized as knowledge-based profession similar to engineering, business or education. I think the whole women’s movement changed things as well because nursing is very much a female-dominated profession. Women found their voice and therefore nurses found their voice. Evolution of unions in the ‘70s played a big role because it encouraged nurses to advocate for themselves. We advocate for the patients all the time, but then nurses realized that if we don’t advocate for ourselves we will not change things, we will not have an impact we could on our patients. Then, there is a whole evolution of knowledge, the expansion of nurses’ knowledge, the research. We have our own theories, we have our own body of knowledge. We are not just servants of doctors. We have our own nursing care.

BF: It is much different from what doctors do. You are much closer to the patients.
DF: Very much so. It’s a partnership. Of all the health care providers, nurses are just one provider in that whole team. One could not work without the other, but because the nurses are 24/7, many consider nurses the glue that holds everything together. Patients depend on that – on knowing that there is a nurse outside the room.

BF: How did you find the transition from the clinical side to this other side of nursing?
DF: I moved from a faculty position at the Grace School of Nursing to overnight being a president of an organization that represented 5,000 nurses. It was very different, but I also loved it. The more challenging it was, the more I enjoyed it. Through my nursing career, I developed a lot of skills that I was able to transpose to this position. As a nurse, there is a lot of critical thinking, you are looking at a lot of information in a very short period of time. So I think I had a really good decision-making system.

BF: When you look at the nursing profession now, from your position, what do you see as the major challenges facing nurses today?
DF: I think the nurses are very challenged right now in terms of their ability to provide the care that they want to every single day. Some of it is because they are short-staffed. Having to work short-staffed, they are having difficulty trying to fill those gaps in the system, which means having to work a lot of overtime, which means the nurses are very tired and they are concerned about that compromising care. I believe that for any nurse, what they want is to be able to go to work every day, provide good care to their patients and go home at the end of their day and say “I did a good job today.” And I don’t feel that nurses are feeling that on a regular basis. I don’t think that nurses are having enough good days to balance out the rough days.

BF: If you could change one thing in nursing tomorrow, what would you do?
DF: [Long pause] That is a big question. If I could … I would wave a magic wand to say that we have enough nurses in this province to fill the positions that are vacant and that our staffing levels are safe and that nurses can give an excellent quality of care to their patients and feel satisfied. The other thing to change about nursing is that nurses’ knowledge of the way the system works needs to be tapped into more than it is being tapped into today. True consultation, true listening to people 24 hours a day, seven days a week and asking them “How can we make this better? We want to do this. Will it work?” And if a nurse says “No. It will not work for these reasons,” then they need to be listened to because only a nurse understands what the system is like at three o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night. If there is a policy change, then it needs to work at three o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night. Nurses have been around that system of top-down [policy making] for a long time and, unfortunately, they get very disillusioned because and even when they have an opportunity for meaningful input they say “What’s the point? We’ve seen it before.” It’s our job to change that mindset and encourage nurses to be involved, but if nurses would see their input being used, once even, what difference would that make in terms of setting the right atmosphere. We have to keep using those opportunities. Our advocacy role as nurses is to advocate in behalf of the system and the patients and on behalf ourselves. I am very serious about that.