Friday, March 29, 2019

Nick turns to teens to help raise reporting of concussions

By Louise Kinross

Nick Reed is an occupational therapist who joined Holland Bloorview as a research associate. In almost six short years, he’s become a senior clinician-scientist, co-director of our pediatric concussion centre, and most recently, the Holland Family Chair in acquired brain injury. He’s passionate about bringing an occupational therapy lens to rehab for children with sports and other concussions.

It all began when he followed a youth hockey team for a season as part of a graduate research project. Nick put sensors in the players’ helmets, then tracked the number of times they were hit in the head, and how hard. “That opened my eyes to what research could be,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of occupational therapists working in pediatric concussion. I saw it as an opportunity to carve out a niche.” We spoke about his early days and how he’s grown Holland Bloorview’s concussion centre into an internationally recognized leader.

BLOOM: How did you get into the field?

Nick Reed:
Growing up I played every sport under the sun. I started lacrosse at age five and played through university and Junior A and was drafted into the National Lacrosse League. So sports were big for me, and I always had injuries. I thought I wanted to bring health care and sports together, and that I’d go to med school or physio school.

One night in third year of my undergrad, I went to an information night on physio. But they ended up presenting first on occupational therapy. It blew me away: This idea that a knee isn’t just a knee—it’s a knee on a body on a person in a family in the community. Thinking about this holistic focus on the person and asking the person what they need—not making assumptions—excited me. I took the leap and changed my plans.

BLOOM: What is a typical day like now?

Nick Reed:
A busy one. It’s an exercise in prioritizing across different demands. I’m no longer directly in the clinic but I support our clinics with advice and integration of research. In the early days it was the physicians and me—I was the rehab team. As the clinic grew and we secured more funding and brought on more staff, my role transitioned to focus more on the research, teaching and advising.

BLOOM: One of the clinics it the persistent symptoms clinic.

Nick Reed:
It’s our flagship clinic. It’s a globally funded outpatient clinic for kids who have had concussion symptoms for four weeks or longer. We also have an early care clinic that is fee for service for children with a concussion that’s four weeks or less old. They come in to get diagnosis, consultation and rehab.

While I advise these clinics, the majority of my time is spent growing and directing our research program as a clinician scientist.

BLOOM: Can you tell me about that?

Nick Reed:
It’s quite large. We have about 20 projects, and five or six of them are major grants. The one I’m most excited about now is a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant. We want to extend our thinking in novel ways about how to raise awareness of concussions and change behaviour in reporting them among youth.

BLOOM: Why is there still a problem with teens pretending they’re okay when they’re not?

Nick Reed:
There are two reasons. The sport culture of never being allowed to be hurt: ‘Just rub some dirt on it and get back out there.’ I had my own concussions, and we didn’t talk about it, we just kept playing. And people didn’t know a lot about concussions—they didn’t know the signs and symptoms.

Eighteen high schools across Canada will be part of a project we’re launching in September. We’ll be getting them to create concussion clubs—to raise awareness of symptoms and what to do, and to provide support to peers who have concussions. Young people will come up with creative and relevant and meaningful ways to educate their peers.

All through this process we’ve had high school students tell us what works and what doesn’t. They’re co-investigators. For example, we created an online portal to support them, and we thought it looked amazing. We took it to a local high school that has a cyber arts program to get their opinions and they didn’t like it at all.


Nick Reed:
They said the colours and feel were too corporate. So we handed over the reins to them and they came up with a whole new colour scheme, logos and flow. One of our family leaders—Gideon Sheps—linked us to that high school. It goes back to that occupational therapy idea of anyone you sit down with is the expert in their own domain. The real strengths come from the person we engage with—whether it’s clinically, or in this case youth in their high school.

BLOOM: What’s the greatest joy of your job?

Nick Reed:
People. Engaging with people and watching and supporting people do amazing things. Whether that’s working with and learning from my PhD and master’s and undergrad students, watching them develop and grow and become inspired. It’s a dream, a real luxury of academia. You’re able to build relationships over time, over years.

And it’s not as ‘I’m a supervisor,’ but ‘We’re in this together. I’m learning from you as much as you from me.’ Working with people—whether it’s with sports organizations in the community, schools or youth or family members—is what drives me to get up every day. To be part of a team and engage as many people as possible in a meaningful process that will make a difference.

BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge?

Nick Reed:
My role is unique. I’m not just a scientist, or a clinician or an educator. I see myself as all of these things, and we’ve attempted to design our program to integrate all of them. We want to break down the silos. So trying to bring it all together is the greatest challenge. You can’t do meaningful research without the knowledge and experience of sitting down with the families who need it. We’re here to help at every step of the way, be it in our clinics, or through the research and education and support. But these programs fall under different areas in the hospital. So it’s trying to integrate them so we have proper communication and all work together.

BLOOM: What’s the biggest misconception about concussion?

Nick Reed:
There are two ends of the spectrum. One is that continued thinking that ‘it’s not a big deal.’ It is a brain injury and it’s a serious injury if you don’t receive medical attention and diagnosis, so you have the potential to prevent repeated injury.

On the other end of the spectrum is hysteria about concussion. We read a lot in the media about brain disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s, or we hear about a professional athlete with serious issues who has died by suicide. A parent may feel ‘If my child has a concussion, everything will change forever.’

We need to tailor a message to land in the middle. It is an injury you want to get treated, and to have rehab support along the way. But it’s also an injury we can manage, for the most part, for most kids. About 70 per cent of kids will feel well within a month. The probabilities of getting back to what you love to do are extremely high.

BLOOM: What emotions come with the job?

Nick Reed:
Being in academia and health care, there are always challenges with regards to funding, or to sustaining a program. But I’m a very positive person and I’m always optimistic. That’s good for someone in my role. I truly believe if you put good stuff out, that good stuff will come back. And if you co-create with the people who need it, you will do work that matters.

BLOOM: Do you have problems with overworking?

Nick Reed:
I do wear a lot of hats and have a crazy schedule. I think we all do. There was one time two years ago when I got shingles and my body shut down. I had three little kids at home, and I was balancing that with work and my personality of ‘go, go, go.’ I live off adrenaline. I don’t have caffeine, but I get up early, at 5:30.

Three days a week I go to Variety Village. I run the track, do a little bit of weights or play a bit of basketball and swim. I need to be home by 7 to make my kids’ lunches. The other days I tend to get up early and work, either at home or here. Physical activity is a big part of my life. My father had a heart attack at 45, when I was in early high school, and he did his rehab at Variety Village. I really appreciate the opportunity there for my family to be exposed to individuals of all abilities and ethnicities and cultures. I get great questions from my kids, who are seven, five and three.

BLOOM: If you could change one thing about children’s rehab as it applies to concussion, what would it be?

Nick Reed:
It’s what we’re trying to do—really focusing on the child. So having the perspective that what this child needs, and loves to do, really matters. They have an opinion, even if it’s a little guy, and we need to engage the child actively in rehab. I’m really proud that we do that at Holland Bloorview, and not just in concussions. We need to move past a focus just on symptoms like headaches to ‘How do you feel? What do you want to do today? What can I do to help you do the things that make you happy?'

Thursday, March 28, 2019

When parent hopes and rehab truths clash

By Louise Kinross

Sarah Davidson is an occupational therapist at Holland Bloorview. For 14 years she’s worked with children with complex medical needs who are hospitalized here after painful surgeries or life-changing illness or trauma. Of course, that also means working with their parents. She worked with my son when he was an inpatient. We talked about what it’s like to work with families who are under enormous emotional stress.

BLOOM: How did you get into this field?

Sarah Davidson:
I always knew I wanted to work in healthcare. When I finished my undergrad degree, I took four years off and explored different professions. I looked at nursing, medicine and physio and occupational therapy, and OT
was what worked out for me. At the time I worked at SickKids in an administrative role. I’ve always wanted to work with kids and once I finished school I waited to start my first job as an OT at Holland Bloorview so that I could find a job that fit with my interests. 

BLOOM: What is a typical day like now?

Sarah Davidson:
A lot of the OTs start early. We’re here at 7:30 a.m. That way if a child is learning how to get dressed in a different way, we can assess them and try to help them become more independent. We see a lot of inpatients for active therapy, so we book sessions throughout the day. It could be to work on strengthening their arms, being able to sit while they play and finding ways for them to self-feed. Our main goal is to help kids to be as independent as they can be.

Equipment is a big part of what we do—trying out equipment to toilet, or to be able to have a shower or bath. We do a lot of wheelchair prescriptions and prepare families to go home. It could be talking to a family about how to transport their child with a ventilator.

BLOOM: What’s the greatest joy of the job?

Sarah Davidson:
I think, like everyone who works here, we love coming and seeing the children and the families. I love seeing kids make changes and be able to go home with their families, because it’s difficult to be in hospital. I also really love learning about the experiences of the different families I work with and where they come from.

A huge part of my love of this place is the team I work with. I’m surrounded by people who support me and who I can learn from. They’re there when you're not sure what to do, or have a difficult situation. They bring treats. They make you laugh. They know about your life outside of Bloorview, so they know a lot about you as a professional and as a person.

BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge?

Sarah Davidson:
One of the greatest challenges for me is balancing a family’s hope for their child’s recovery with my own understanding of what their recovery will look like. We may know, deep down in our hearts, that a child is not going to do some of the things they did before.

I’m thinking about what the family will need to do to get home. Will they need to change how their home is set up? Or move to a different house? Or make decisions about wheelchairs and equipment that they never anticipated their child needing?

We’re at a place where we’re ready to have these conversations, but families often aren’t ready.

The wheelchair conversation is the hardest. 

BLOOM: I know Barbara Gibson has done research about how our culture places so much value on walking.

Sarah Davidson: Sometimes Holland Bloorview is the parents’ first exposure to disability. Their child may have gone through something traumatic and lost a lot of their abilities. And the parents are still grieving and in crisis. Sometimes needing to make significant decisions that will impact their child’s future is just too much. 

BLOOM: It sounds like it’s an emotional process that you can’t rush. On the other hand, you must feel pressure to make sure they have what they need when they go home.

Sarah Davidson:
The time they’re here isn’t indefinite, and it’s a window during which we can help support them. The fact that they will need to be discharged is a pressure.

What I’ve learned, after being here for so long, is that some families won’t be ready to make those big decisions while they’re inpatients, and that’s okay. Sometimes they need to go home and live their new reality first.

BLOOM: What kind of emotions come up for you around difficult conversations with families?

Sarah Davidson:
Sometimes I get nervous. I can also feel sad when I put myself in the family’s situation—they have to think about things they never thought they would think about.

BLOOM: Do families sometimes lash out at you?

Sarah Davidson:
When the family’s stress level is high, it can be directed onto staff. Parents may say hurtful things. I don’t think families realize that we take their situations home with us. I try not to take things personally, but it can be very difficult at times.

BLOOM: As a parent I didn’t think about how it felt to be on the staff side of hard conversations until I heard a therapist here describe it. Is there anything you do to support yourself?

Sarah Davidson:
We use our team to help deliver a consistent message. That may be during a family team meeting, or by pulling together a smaller team. So the physio and I may meet with the family together. If the physio has been working on walking, having us both there to make suggestions is helpful.

BLOOM: What do you do to manage your own stress?

Sarah Davidson:
I do my best to take my lunches and take advantage of what’s offered at Holland Bloorview. I go swimming at lunch or participate in the weekly mindfulness session. I also participated in the mindful self-compassion group last fall. I go for a walk or come and read in the library. It’s easy to get stuck at your desk working through lunch but when I do, I’m exhausted at the end of the day. Then I’m not really there for my own family.

BLOOM: What qualities are important in your role?

Sarah Davidson:
Being able to listen to what families want and need. Even if you’ve done something a few times with clients with the same diagnosis, every family needs something different. Being patient, and realizing you will have to say the information over and over again, in different ways, for families to hear and understand it. Being able to have empathy and compassion for what they’re going through.

BLOOM: What about creativity?

Sarah Davidson:
That goes with knowing every family is different. Sometimes you’ll plan for a session but it doesn’t go as you thought it would, and you need to think on the spot to try something different. For the older kids, you can negotiate things, because they understand that you’re trying to help them. But for the younger kids, you have to make what they need to do appear fun.

BLOOM: If you could change one thing in children’s rehab, what would it be?

Sarah Davidson
: I think better access to services and resources when families leave here. Our families are fearful and worried about finding community nursing to support kids who have tracheotomies and ventilators. Respite services are limited and families are burning out. Even in a big city like Toronto, the home nursing isn’t there to support families.

Funding is another big area of need. A lot of the equipment is very expensive. We also need better access to therapy services in the community. There’s some, but not always the frequency that is needed.

BLOOM: If you had to give advice to yourself on your first day, from where you stand now, what would you say?

Sarah Davidson:
It’s okay not to know everything. You’ll never know everything, and you’ll continue to learn from your colleagues and from every family you work with. When we’re honest with families that we don’t know everything—that we’re not sure about what the best solution is—it makes it easier to partner with them and get their input.

BLOOM: Because we can’t necessarily ‘solve’ things in a traditional sense for many of the kids and families we work with.

Sarah Davidson:
 Sometimes you can’t change what is. Sometimes you can’t make it better.

BLOOM: If you could change something about our workplace, what would it be?

Sarah Davidson:
Recognizing that staff are under an incredible amount of stress. They’re dealing with an ever-increasing complexity of clients and families, and it’s important to offer supports.

For example, I felt valued that we were allowed to take the eight-week mindful self-compassion course. It was a significant amount of time out of our work week that enabled me to connect with clinicians, not just in my program, but across the organization. I got to hear their stories and learn how to better take care of myself.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

New parent sleeper chairs make hospital stays more restful

Holland Bloorview family leader Lies Ferriman was one of a group of parents who tested out the chairs, which pull into beds, at the factory. She remembers sleeping on a narrow cot with pointy springs when her son was hospitalized at our old Bloorview site.

By Louise Kinross

Seventy-five new sleeper chairs for parents staying at their child’s bedside at Holland Bloorview are being purchased thanks to dollars raised by our recent Capes for Kids campaign and the Leaside Block Party.

The first 50 chairs, at a cost of over $80,000, are on site, and the remaining 25 will be ordered in April.

The chairs, which pull out into beds, were factory tested by parents before a selection was made.

“I couldn’t get comfortable when I slept on the cots at the old Bloorview site,” says Lies Ferriman, a parent whose son was hospitalized with a brain injury. “And the more recent red chairs we had were just as narrow.”

There was also a fold in the red chairs that jabbed into your back. “It was awful,” Lies says. “When you aren’t able to sleep in this situation, it creates such a weariness.” Over the years, parent complaints about sleepless nights piled up.

The new sleeper chairs are much wider and longer than the old ones, with good back support and softer material. “Every patient bed will have one,” said Irene Simpson, operations manager for two of our hospital units.

The grant submission for the new chairs was written by family leader Cheryl Peters and Aman Sium, director of Client and Family Integrated Care. It included an appendix with quotes from parents about how lack of sleep made it difficult for them to cope. “The emotional fatigue…can be crippling, and then add the physical fatigue from a poor night’s sleep,” wrote one. “If more comfortable sleeper beds were available, better rested caregivers might lead to less stress on the unit. Fatigue can lead to poor listening and decision-making skills.”

Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Foundation is still fundraising for some of the beds.

In addition, Capital One purchased relaxation kits for each family, and worked with our foundation to assemble them.

The kits include a pillow, sheet set, eye mask, ear plugs and other items designed to make parents comfortable.

Much sweeter dreams are on the way.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

How does having a disabled neighbour 'dash your dreams?'

Families protest the Weyburn, Sask. decision to keep a small group home out. This photo is from CBC News

By Louise Kinross

I’m embarrassed.

This isn’t the Canada I know and love. But apparently, according to two recent news stories, it is.

Last night I read about how the city council of Weyburn, Sask. rejected a home for four adults with disabilities in a new subdivision called The Creeks.

Four people!

According to this Toronto Star story, there was “tremendous pushback” from residents who’d bought expensive homes in the neighbourhood. “It kind of dashes the dreams and hopes of the people that live there currently,” said Coun. Brad Wheeler at a council meeting on Monday.

Just how, exactly, does having a person with a disability living on your street dash your dreams?

Oddly, the Star story includes a photo of the Weyburn sign welcoming people to what it calls “the opportunity city”—just not for the people waiting for the small group home that was tossed.

The developer of The Creeks supports the home.

This story played out as Ryerson disability scholars spoke to CBC Radio about a Nova Scotia human rights inquiry that found the government discriminated against three people with intellectual disabilities by locking them away in hospital psychiatric wards, for no medical reason, for years. When the complaint was launched in 2014 they were still living in hospitals.

“The conditions of their life were described as soul-destroying,” said Esther Ignagni, an associate professor in Ryerson’s disability studies program. For example, one person was locked in a room with a television for 23 hours a day.

The Nova Scotia applicants argued that the province should have provided them with the supports to live in the kind of small group home that Weyburn, Sask. residents just snubbed.

However, Walter Thompson, chairman of the Nova Scotia inquiry board, rejected the argument that timely placement in a small group home is a human right.

According to the CBC radio interview, there are 1,500 other disabled Nova Scotians waiting for such a home.

He also rejected the idea that ableism was behind the lack of community options.

Ableism is the “idea that disabled people are not valuable or vital parts of our society and it’s permissible to send disabled people away and …lock them up,” said Eliza Chandler, also an assistant professor in Ryerson's disability studies program.

Doesn’t the first half of that description perfectly mirror the attitudes and actions we see in Weyburn, Sask.? 

“These people have invested a lot of money into their dream homes, their retirement homes and to have the provincial government come in and pick a lot directly across from them, I don’t think that was the best choice,” Wheeler was quoted saying.

Chandler was asked what a world without ableism would look like. It would be “accessible and inclusive of disabled people and would value us as citizens and want us in your cities, in your town and as your neighbours,” she said.

Meanwhile, here in Ontario we're told the wait for a group home placement for adults with intellectual disabilities is over 20 years. I have been told, by a person at the end of the Developmental Services Ontario line, that it doesn't happen until someone in an existing home dies. 

I think Canadian kids need a new word on their spelling tests: ableism.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Time for a parenting reality check

By Louise Kinross

It’s so easy to look from the outside of someone’s life and make assumptions about how they’re doing. In the last 24 hours, I read a couple of posts that showed me how wrong we can be. 

When we ask someone how they’re doing, do we really want to hear the answer? Do we make room for people to share candidly? Or do we just want the sanitized ‘fine,’ so we can go on our merry way?

Susan Senator and Maya Wechsler are what I think of as super parents. People who have literally moved the world to give their kids fabulous lives. Trailblazers.

But yesterday, they were both waving distress flags.

Susan is a Boston author who’s written a number of books on raising her son Nat, who has autism and doesn’t speak. The most recent was Autism Adulthood: Insights and Creative Strategies For a Fulfilling Life. She’s also written for BLOOM.

I always looked to Susan with envy at her ability to work with Nat and her family to come up with creative ways for Nat to live in the community with support. There had been some horrific bumps. But the last time I checked in, it seemed he was in a great living arrangement and doing cool things like playing in a band.

So it was a shock to hear yesterday that Nat had returned home, and to read this Facebook post:

“No matter how hard I work to help make this world a better place, to actually give a sh%t about people like Nat, I get obstacles thrown in my path, I get fight after fight for just basic inclusion and decent treatment of him. I want to f%cking just give up, I am too old for this, and not getting any younger.”

Ironically, The Washington Post also ran a piece called People don’t want to hear the ‘ugly details’ of our struggle to raise and educate our autistic son. That piece is behind a paywall, so you can find it here on the author’s blog.

I was surprised to realize it was written by a mom I'd interviewed in BLOOM: Green acres is the place for me. Maya and her husband moved their family from Washington, D.C. to a farm in Virginia and opened A Farm Less Ordinary, a business selling vegetables that employs adults with intellectual disabilities. They wanted a better life for their son with autism.

In a post from earlier this year, Maya wrote about her experience connecting online with people who were celebrating the 15th reunion of her graduate university program:

“I found myself staring at the conversation, wondering exactly what the hell to say to these people. 'Do I tell them that we are broke? That paying for my son’s therapies and child-care has ruined us, financially, so a trip to Chicago isn’t really in the budget at the moment?...Or do I tell them that I really don’t want to sit around and have polite conversation about their PhDs and growing resumes...?

I am in awe of what Maya and her husband have accomplished with their farm. When I interviewed her, I told her I wished I had the courage to do something like that for my son. I still do.

Back to Maya's piece: “No one wants to hear the truth, when they casually ask how I’m doing, or how my holidays were. They wouldn’t know what to do with the truth, however much I sanitize it for their comfort and digestion. People want to hear about progress.”

So I post this story here as a pause. Let's take a pause and acknowledge the lengths our families go to to try to make the world a livable place for their child. Let's recognize the immense challenges and barriers, that stubbornly persist.

Because if parents like Susan and Maya find themselves at wits' end, we need to sit up, pay attention, and extend compassion, to ourselves and to every family walking a similar path.

Friday, March 8, 2019

A pharmacist who burnt out has a new mission: mental health

By Louise Kinross

Amy Hu is a pharmacist at Holland Bloorview who became interested in children’s rehab after doing a student placement here. She’s been with us for seven years, was the clinical pharmacy coordinator, and is moving into a new role with our quality team. I know Amy from the weekly staff mindfulness sessions offered by social worker Anne-Marie Batelaan. Amy says it was her own experience with burnout that made her want to talk about the importance of staff mental health. ‘I’d like to make staff mental wellbeing a priority in our organization,” she says.

BLOOM: How did you get into this field?

Amy Hu:
I fell into pharmacy because I wanted to do something with science that involved helping people. In second year I had a placement here and discovered this amazing place. I learned about the uniqueness of working in a rehab setting. Most people in pharmacy work in an acute-care or community setting, and pediatric rehab is such a niche. The unique part is how we get to follow clients for much longer than in acute-care. That means you really get to know not just the client but the whole family, and it’s very gratifying from that perspective.

I came here after the hospital moved into our new building. The natural light throughout the building, and the idea of bringing nature in, was so different from other older hospitals I’d been in. It's a healing environment.

The clients and families are resilient and courageous and inspire you every day, and the staff are incredible. The breadth of care we offer, and the amount of skill and passion people bring to their work, left a huge impression on my mind as a student. After my schooling and training, there was an opportunity here and I snatched it up.

BLOOM: What is a typical day like?

Amy Hu:
There’s a lot of activity happening in the basement. That’s the control hub of medication management in this hospital.

The pharmacists could be rounding with the interprofessional team, reviewing medications with families, calling a community pharmacy to help transition a family back to the community, or helping to wean a client off of pain medicines.

Our technician team could be preparing medicines for our inpatients and adjusting them constantly as they change over time. We also sit on many hospital committees to ensure medication safety and do project work at a higher level. We mentor many students and end up hiring about half of them. So there’s a great variety of clinical and project and teaching work. We also support clinical trials at the hospital.

BLOOM: How many people work in pharmacy?

Amy Hu:
There are 10 bodies overall and we have just under three full-time pharmacists.

BLOOM: How did you move from being a pharmacist to your coordinator role?

Amy Hu:
I think it speaks to the increasing complexity and acuity we’re seeing in our population, which I feel started about five to six years ago. I realized that the clinical skills I learned in school weren’t enough to serve the clients here, whose needs were shifting. It required more collaboration and problem-solving at a higher level and more leadership skills. So I went back to school for a master’s of health administration while I was working here.

BLOOM: How did you do that?

Amy Hu:
It was an incredible program at the University of Toronto that enabled me to take two days off every three weeks, and you carry close to a full-time work load and do courses back to back. It allowed me to bring real-world problems and issues into the classroom, and what I learned I could apply back here. I loved the program and use the skills I learned every day.

Now I’m about to move onto our quality team in a new role the organization has supported. The goal is to support front-line teams on projects related to quality or process improvement. It’s something I'm passionate about, and have done for the pharmacy team as a coordinator, but I haven’t had a chance to work with many other teams. This role will allow me to work with inpatient and outpatient teams across the hospital. I'm really looking forward to meeting and learning from our teams, understanding their work flow and hopefully bringing forth meaningful change.

BLOOM: What is the greatest joy of your work?

Amy Hu:
Meeting the amazing people at our hospital. It takes special people to work here, to be a nurse or a social worker or a therapist or a therapeutic clown. It’s incredible to have everyone working together, and that includes the non-clinical staff from departments like information systems, teaching and learning, the research institute and our leadership team.

BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge?

Amy Hu:
The greatest challenge is that there’s so much that can be done here and so many well intentioned people, that it’s easy to go overboard.

BLOOM: You mean in terms of staff?

Amy Hu:
Yes. These days on the frontline I feel like it’s rare to bump into somebody who is coping really well. There can be a lot of stress and symptoms of burn out. That's concerning. It affects people’s capacity to do the work they love to do. Clinicians are put in positions where they have to say I would really like to do this, but I just physically can’t. How do I choose? That’s a tough place when you’re trained as caregivers to give.

BLOOM: What kind of emotions come with the job?

Amy Hu:
All the myriad of human emotions. Like many other people, I have high expectations on myself and feel guilty when I feel like I should be doing more. There’s work stress, and then conflicts between team members can be challenging as well. A couple of years ago it really kicked in for me and I burnt out.

BLOOM: What happened?

Amy Hu:
Work was really tough and I had a family crisis on the side. I remember one day sitting in front of my computer, double checking a medication order before it went to the unit, and the words were not registering. I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing here? This is not safe. I need to stop.’ With the support of our occupational health nurse, my physician and my team, I was on stress leave for almost two months.

BLOOM: What did you learn?

Amy Hu:
As a clinician, you never intend to get to a point where you can’t work. I really learned my own limits. I’m human and I’m fallible and I need to take better care of myself. I needed to actually learn how to be kind to myself. While I was off, I took the mindful self-compassion course, and that was transformative for me.

BLOOM: That’s the course that our social workers Anna Marie and Dagmara offered to staff here recently.

Amy Hu:
Yes. It's amazing that this program was offered here. I did it elsewhere. It helped me to get back to work stronger than I was before—to be more present, and to take time to reflect on what’s important to me, what I value, and how can I bring more of that into what I do. I acknowledged that I needed help from counsellors and mentors. It was a very humbling experience.

BLOOM: What do you do differently now?

Amy Hu:
 With practice, I can take micro pauses throughout the day and become more aware of my experience. I notice if I’m getting triggered, or if certain emotions are coming up, and I allow them to be there. By pausing, leaning in to the emotions, and befriending them, I find I can respond in a kinder way. 

In the past, I was relentless at pushing myself beyond my capacity. Now I say ‘Let’s take a breath.’ The self-awareness helps to regulate my emotions and I also find it helps me to be with the challenges that other people may be experiencing. Finding inner compassion helped me to be a more empathetic person and to better support the people around me.

BLOOM: I think many staff may feel burnt out, but are afraid to approach someone with what they’re going through.

Amy Hu:
That’s why I want to share this story. I think there can be a lot of fear and shame and guilt around recognizing that you may need more support. And it’s not your fault.

The work is quite challenging: we go towards people’s suffering every day. There can be stigma around seeking support, and it’s so important to share the message that getting help is okay. In fact, it takes a lot of inner courage and kindness to go towards our own challenging experiences and emotions.

I had to learn that getting support didn’t take away from my ability to perform—it enhances it in so many ways. I gained so much self-knowledge from this experience and that enabled me to bring a lot more depth and care into my work.

BLOOM: So when you came back from leave, were your hours staggered?

Amy Hu:
Yes, it was a very gradual approach over many weeks, and I kept the counselling support on the side. My manager and teammates were very accommodating, and I'm grateful for their support.

BLOOM: Was it hard to find a therapist?

Amy Hu:
I started with our Employee Assistance Program, and then they suggested I find someone I can work with over the long term. That has been incredibly helpful. 

As I transition into my new quality role and train my team members, sometimes they ask me ‘How do you do it all?’ I remind them that I continue to seek counselling support for my own wellbeing.

For another person, maybe it’s not a counsellor that makes the difference—maybe it’s a friend or a colleague that you trust who is able to be there for you. Through that relationship and self-reflection, you come to a deeper level of understanding yourself. There are people who care and can support you. No one has to do it alone.

BLOOM: What qualities are important on the pharmacy team?

Amy Hu:
The medication safety process is so intricate that you need to be detail oriented. Collaboration is also crucial because it takes the whole team to deliver the right drug to the right person at the right time. One person can’t do it. You need a lot of problem-solving skills. And more and more, we need resilience to change.

BLOOM: You said there’s been a change in the type of clients who come through our doors.

Amy Hu:
They’re coming in with more medications, and more acute medications that have higher risk profiles. Our clients are also younger, so they’re more vulnerable in general to side effects of medicines. We’re also seeing a psychosocial complexity with the families we’re working with.

BLOOM: What’s an example?

Amy Hu:
We may be supporting families who are involved with children’s aid, or who are trying to cope with huge financial challenges. Finding them drug coverage is becoming more challenging. Our families are pulled in so many directions. Trying to figure out equipment, where will they live, how do they feed their child, and on top of that there’s the medication. It’s a lot for them to manage, and in a short period of time. We work with our social work colleagues and our whole team to try to problem solve.

BLOOM: How do you cope when, despite best efforts of everyone on the team, an error occurs? Because we know that every person in this building has made a mistake at one point or another.

Amy Hu:
When medication incidents happen they can be very challenging. We have a good system from a problem-solving perspective. We have a clear process to disclose to the family. As a team, we come together to debrief about where the system could have gone wrong, what the contributing factors were, and what we can do to reduce risk moving forward. From this process perspective we’re very experienced.

The part I find more challenging—and I know other clinicians find challenging—is the emotional impact. It’s the guilt and self-judgment of ‘How could I have done that? How could we have failed?' It’s a tough burden.

No clinician wakes up with the intention to harm somebody. When the stress isn’t so high, these incidents don’t happen. They happen when the system is being stretched, often for a long time, and relies on humans to hold it together, and something eventually falls through the cracks.

These incidents stay with you, and they affect your sense of competence. There's not too much about this in the literature yet. I know from speaking with colleagues at other hospitals that this is something they struggle with.

BLOOM: I know that in the narrative group for inpatient nurses we ran, participants came into the intervention thinking that they were the only ones who struggled with guilt or regret when an error occurs.

Amy Hu:
I agree. That’s why I believe we need to place more priority on debriefing, and foster psychological safety in these conversations, so clinicians aren’t living with the guilt and fear by themselves. If you can process as a group what happened, find support in each other and feel you’re not alone, it helps everyone to cope better. I think it takes time, and every person may be at a different stage of readiness for conversations like this.

BLOOM: If you could change one thing about our workplace, what would it be?

Amy Hu:
It would be to make staff mental wellbeing a priority in our organization. That could be at multiple levels. We could support teams to have open conversations about challenging experiences that make clinicians feel vulnerable. It could be supporting more mindfulness programs at the hospital, so more staff have access to these tools.

It could also be at the individual level—for each of us to reflect on what wellbeing means to us, what matters to us, and what we can each do to support ourselves and each other. It takes a whole village to run this operation and care for our children and families. We need a cohesive approach to addressing this.