by Heidi Riley
“Nursing is an amazing profession, and I am proud of the career I chose,” says Barbara Brookins, President of the PEI Nurses’ Union, which represents Registered Nurses (RNs) and Nurse Practitioners on PEI.
“I don’t think there is another profession that is as rewarding. Whether it is a happy birth or when things go wrong, you know you have supported someone though a very challenging time in their lives.
“You have given comfort and helped someone cope, and sometimes just being there is enough. You want to remember that each patient could be your own child or parent, and you treat them the way you would want your own loved one to be treated.”
Barbara wholeheartedly recommends nursing as a career. “You may hear reports about nurse shortages and issues with time off, but that will settle in time, because if it does not, the system will not be able to continue, and that is not an option.”
Many career paths as an RN
“Nursing is a very flexible career, and there are many paths to choose from. Some become a Registered Nurse and never intend to work directly with patients. They graduate from the Nursing program, go on to earn a Masters, and then work as educators, clinical leaders, or in research.
“Even as a front-line nurse, the career paths are endless. You can work in acute care, long-term care, primary care, community care, home care, mental health in long-term or acute care settings, and soon we will have a mobile response team as well. You could also be a travelling nurse in northern communities. There is a great need for Registered Nurses in all those areas.
“Even now with COVID-19, quite a few RNs have come out of retirement to work in testing clinics and vaccine clinics. They were given conditional licenses by the College so that they can only work in those clinics during the pandemic.”
UPEI offers a four-year UPEI Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Beginning this year, UPEI will increase the number of seats in that program from 64 to 70 per year. In four years, UPEI plans to have increased the number of nursing seats by 48.
UPEI also offers an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program which runs two full years without breaks. The accelerated program is only available to those who already have a previous degree. The number of seats in that program has risen from 16 to 28 per year.
“However, not all nursing students are from PEI, and not all graduates will remain on PEI to work,” says Barbara. “PEI has the lowest retention rate in the country of RNs who trained here and stayed to work here. PEI Nursing graduates can work anywhere in the world.”
Many RNs try different career pathways in nursing. “Courses are offered by the employer that may just be a short weekend course, or longer courses for critical care, operating room or dialysis, to name a few. Earning certifications in specialty courses could take six months to two years.
“You could start working in the Emergency Room, and as you progress in your skillset, you can move to a more acute or critical area. It could take up to two years to get into a full scope and be able to do all the roles required in some of the more critical or fast-paced areas.
“You are never done learning in any profession, especially nursing. Everything keeps changing, and nursing has become so specialized. Even medical unit nurses, who were considered entry-level and more predictable positions, are now becoming specialized in taking care of more complex cases, with more specialized training for care of the elderly, palliative care, medication, and family dynamics.”
PEI RNs earn one of the lowest salaries in Canada. There is a salary grid based on six steps. Step one is for new nurses. According to the current contract, new RNs working in acute care earn $34.30 per hour, and after five years they reach the top step at $41.84. After working 25 years, RNs receive another pay boost to $43.07.
A nursing supervisor earns $39.07 to $48.89 an hour. Nurse Practitioners, who have earned a Master of Nursing, start at $51.08 per hour and range up to $57.82 per hour.
Shortage of nurses
About 1,350 Registered Nurses and 52 Nurse Practitioners are members of the PEI Nurses Union. A few hundred additional RNs work in management, as instructors at UPEI and Holland College, or in private long-term care facilities.
There is currently a shortage on PEI of at least 200 Registered Nurses to fill available positions. “Because of shortages, many full-time nurses have not been allowed leave, so they are moving to part-time positions so they can have more flexible work schedules and can be more in control of the hours they work,” says Barbara. “It means that now we need more nurses to cover the number of work hours required to provide the service.
“Most Islanders have no idea how big of a problem the nursing shortage really is. When you come in with your family member or are a surgical or medical patient, keep in mind that RNs are providing care and trying not to show that they have missed their breaks or have been called in to work every day that week. They keep smiling and do their job.
“However, our current public awareness campaign is drawing attention to the problem and saying that the situation is continuing to deteriorate to the point that nurses are exhausted and can’t continue to do what they have been doing. We need to provide a foundation for the new nurses coming in so that they feel supported and enjoy the profession like I did when I first started.”
Barbara says the shortage began well before the pandemic, but COVID-19 may have pushed out some nurses who were close to retirement.
“Right now, we are at the point where the employer has scaled back on the number of RN positions and the system has gone down to bare bones. The reason why positions are vacant must be addressed before the positions can be filled. We need to ensure that RNs will be able to get time off, whether it is their entitled time or for professional development or for unforeseen life events, and they need flexibility in their schedules to be able to balance work with home life.”
Barbara says over the years, the system has reduced the number of RNs to the point where on PEI, there may only be one or two RNS working on a unit. “You can’t function with a number lower than that.
“On PEI, if just one nurse is missing from their shift, it makes a huge impact on patient care. Staffing numbers should be at more than 100 percent because they should factor in absences due to leave, education requirements, and life events. The smaller the facility and the fewer people delivering the service, the less it takes to negatively impact the healthcare system. No one wants that to happen.
“Especially with so many vacant positions right now, RNs on PEI often get asked if they want to pick up an extra shift on their time off, and they may feel guilty or pressured to go in. We have seen cases where someone is asked to work two 12-hour shifts back-to-back because there was no one to replace them.
“For young nurses just starting, they may find that there simply is not enough time to do all the tasks for each patient the way they were trained to do. Nurses need to learn how to prioritize, decide what will be done first, and what will not get done at all. Those are hard decisions.
“When I started nursing, I had two children and I don’t remember ever missing my kids’ hockey or baseball games. I volunteered at Sunday school, Girl Guides, hockey, and figure skating. If I needed time off, I was able to get it.
“Now, the only way RNs can be assured they will get time off is to trade shifts or take a part-time position, so that their time is more flexible, and they can work more if they want to.”
Nursing care requires shifts that cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Their contract stipulates that PEI RNs work every second weekend, and do not work more than three 12-hour shifts in three days.
Many shifts are 12 hours long. “You may consider long shifts to be a bad thing, but 12-hour shifts three or four times a week allows more days off to devote to a personal life. It gives a lot more flexibility than working five days a week.
“In addition to regular duties, nurses also look after the psychosocial wellbeing of patients and family members. It’s about being with a patient and their family at end of life or a critical incident. If the outcome is negative, you have to be able to quickly change direction and walk into the next room and focus on the next patient with a smile on your face.”
Barbara Brookins’ career path
Barbara worked for almost 30 years in the Emergency Department at the Prince County Hospital in Summerside. In May 2019 she switched into specializing in Infection Control, and soon after, COVID-19 became an issue.
“It was interesting to be in the thick of developing policies and protocols and trying to figure out impacts on staff and service delivery. There was so much coordination required to ensure the health system was able to operate while protecting patients and healthcare workers.”
Barbara took on the role of President of the PEI Nurses Union for three years starting in 2007, and then returned in December 2020. “Pretty much since I graduated, I have been aware of the terms of our contract and our rights, and I always wanted everyone to know what they were entitled to. Many nurses didn’t realize that what they were highly encouraged to do was something that was not supported by the contract.
“I have been active in the Union since I graduated. I wanted to know all about our contract and ensure that everyone knew what they were entitled to.
“Now, I work to improve language that addresses work/life issues, such as scheduling, overtime, staffing, education, vacations, pension, and health benefits.
“We are now trying to make our work and life more balanced, so that new and current nurses will have long and balanced careers.”
For more about the PEI Nurses’ Union, click here
To check open nursing positions on PEI, click here