Marilyn Wacko, RN
Executive Director, ARNET (Alberta Registered Nurses Educational Trust)
There are heroes among us, who silently combat conditions that we know little of. They do what they can to help make life better for others, which usually means acquiring new knowledge and skills. Marilyn Wacko, a registered nurse and Executive Director of the Alberta Registered Nurses Educational Trust (ARNET) knows firsthand what a difference it can make in the quality of care Canadians receive, when nurses are supported in their learning journey.
How did your journey as a nurse begin, and what confirmed that it was the right path for you?
I got into nursing by chance. My mother was trained as a nurse but started a family after graduating, so she never actually practiced nursing. When a friend told me that she was going into nursing, I thought I’d give it a try to see if I liked it. I started working on a surgical unit at the University of Alberta Hospital and during that time went back to school to get my degree in nursing at UBC.
It was through some deeply emotional experiences following my formal education that a new kind of learning began, which really connected me to my work. In working at women’s emergency shelters, I had profound and eye-opening experiences caring for women who had been assaulted by their partners. In that position, I learned about the cycle of domestic violence and how complex it is which taught me to be non-judgmental of people in that situation. I also worked with youth from the inner city, which gave me insight into how my privilege had conditioned my perspective.
What really appeals to me about nursing overall is that I see it as a means to help people manage their health with dignity and autonomy. Nurses play an important role in ensuring that patients and their families stay involved in their loved one’s care, focused on the patient’s well being. We need to encourage their voice. We need to listen to them. I’ve come to believe that nurses have an obligation to use their own voices to speak up on behalf of patients when they need us. Instead of asking, “What will happen to me if I speak up…will I get in trouble?”, we should ask, “What will happen to the patient if I don’t?”
You were called back to clinical nursing practice to help with the pandemic by administering COVID vaccines. What has been your experience in doing that?
One person in particular stands out in my mind. He was an immigrant to Canada and one of the first people in line on the day vaccine eligibility was opened to people in their 40’s. He had waited in line for more than 3 hours and could barely sit still in the chair because he was so excited to be getting the vaccine. Despite his mask, I could see his eyes gleaming because he was so grateful.
This reaction was typical. Many people who came to get vaccinated feared exposure because of their job, such as frontline workers, school teachers and retail workers. They were just so happy and grateful to be getting the shot so that they could protect their families. They thanked me for putting myself at risk to help them. They were not annoyed at having to wait in a long line – their main concern was how soon could they get the next shot! It’s not often that people are happy about getting a needle!
Since the pandemic began, I have felt the need to do more on the frontlines to support my colleagues. I feel good about being able to help people receive their vaccination…it’s the only way we’ll get through this.
Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, is one of your inspirations. What is the “why” behind our need for quality nurses that most people don’t think about?
The nursing profession is constantly changing and evolving! Much of the public is unaware that nurses continue to pursue specialized education and participate in research, increasing their skills and knowledge yearly, which only serves to improve your experience in the healthcare system. Increased learning immediately impacts the care you get the next time you need to go into the hospital or receive care in the community.
For example, research enables nurses to learn ways to help you heal faster, manage your pain better, and shorten the time you spend in hospital. Nurses learn about the positive impact of family involvement in care, regardless of what your personal definition of family is. For example, your neighbour may be your family. Families need to be part of the journey, both in and outside of the hospital, with a focus on the healing that comes with caring.
Why do we need orgs like ARNET?
The more knowledge, education, and experience nurses have, the better care they can give – which means patient outcomes will be better. After nurses complete their initial education, it’s often difficult for them to advance their education when they work full time and may have families to care for. Gaining specialized or advanced education becomes one more duty to add to an already heavy load.
Nurses are often the primary caregivers for their own or extended family. Most nurses work while continuing their education which adds immense stress. Providing financial support helps nurses continue to work and care for their family, decreasing the financial stress while advancing their education.
Ongoing nursing education and research has a direct and immediate impact on patient care and outcomes. Nursing research is underfunded, and tuition costs continue to rise significantly each year. This past year has been particularly difficult with the pandemic and economic downturn in Alberta. ARNET has received more thank you’s than usual as we assist nurses who need to pay tuition. In some cases, support provided by ARNET has even made the difference between someone being able to continue their education or not.
What is your one wish for the future of nursing?
That we, as a profession, advance to a point where it’s possible to ensure that patients are the center of care. If ARNET can support nurses in continuing to improve their knowledge and skills in patient care, we will be one step closer to putting patients’ wellbeing first. Nurses often want to delve deeper into one area of patients’ care and treatment, so ARNET will hopefully provide funding for research that will allow them to do this. Finding time and resources for higher education is difficult, we know that and want to support nurses financially, in a way that allows them to practice and further their learning at the same time.