Apr 03,2014
By Leah Geller

Faith, family and community

Nursing and farming feed the soul of Cindy Cousins

Cindy Cousins is definitely a people person. Whether she’s doing a shift at the Prince Edward Island Cancer Treatment Centre or running her organic farm, it’s day-to-day interactions with friends, family, the community and patients that matter most to her.

“I’m passionate about nursing, and I’m really glad I’ve maintained my licence, even while raising my family and starting our farm,” Cousins says. “Nursing was the only career I thought of as a kid growing up in Pinette [a small town in eastern P.E.I.].”

In 1982, she completed the three-year diploma program at the Prince Edward Island school of nursing, in Charlottetown. Over the next decade, she worked at the city’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, on Unit 1, a floor that had orthopaedic, cardiac, oncology and burn care patients. It was there that she was introduced to oncology nursing.

As her family grew — Cousins and her husband have five children between the ages of 14 and 24 — she continued nursing on a casual basis. In 2008, she was hired as a staff nurse by the treatment centre, where she continues to work part time today, rotating through triage, the clinic, radiation and chemotherapy administration.

Her approach has evolved over the years. “I’ve grown as a person and that maturity allows me to connect deeply with my patients and support them, and still maintain a high level of professionalism.” She obtained her CNA certification in oncology nursing in 2011 and is a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology.

Cousins says she can’t imagine being involved in any other kind of patient care. “So many of my patients have illnesses that are curable, and it’s a privilege to help them come out on the other side. And even when it seems there is little hope, I am able to offer comfort.”

The negative impact of environmental toxins on health is an issue that has long concerned her. “The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat is part of the increase in all kinds of illnesses. It’s not rocket science,” she says. Which is why growing safe, healthy food for her family and community is important to her.

“My husband and I were familiar with the widespread devastation of the land and waterways caused by traditional farming,” explains Cousins, “and we see how the health of Islanders has been affected as a result. We wanted to operate an organic farm, without pesticides and herbicides.”

Cousins and her husband, who is a minister, have been living on the 110-acre farm since 1992. At the time, the land, located 20 minutes east of Charlottetown, was owned by his employer, and the couple were running a retreat program for troubled young adults. Then, six years ago, they decided to buy the property and launched The Shepherd’s Farm, offering live-in experiences for anyone interested in learning farming practices.

Today, they grow vegetables and berries, and raise chickens, turkeys, sheep, cows and pigs for sale locally. Luckily, the land had already been farmed sustainably for years, so it was relatively easy to move to organic. “The farm is certified organic, but lots of farms produce food in a safe and healthy way and don’t have the certification,” Cousins explains. “I think that encouraging people to buy certified organic products is not as important as emphasizing that they get to know local farmers and find out how their products are produced.”

One of the positive spinoffs of the farm is that it created summer jobs for the Cousins children and opportunities for them to take on responsibilities as stakeholders and entrepreneurs during their teenage years: “They developed a strong work ethic that will serve them well, I think, no matter what career path they choose as adults.”

Cousins is quick to point out that The Shepherd’s Farm is a labour-intensive operation. “You have to put your whole heart and soul into it. And even at that, it’s not paying the bills, so we’ve had to be creative.” Branching out with cooking classes, day camps, farm-to-table suppers and rental space for retreats has helped them reach new customers and spread the word about growing organically.

Cousins is proud that the farm is a place that draws people together and sustains her family. “Foundationally, the most important things to me are my faith, my family and the community around me. My work as a farmer and a nurse allows me to serve all three.”


10 questions with Cindy Cousins

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?
Strong

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
An occasional lack of confidence in things I know I’m capable of

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn? 
I used to be shy

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Do more cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, camping and walking on our beaches

Where did you go on your last vacation?
The west coast of Newfoundland, for a camping trip

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
Africa. My family is connected to people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda

What was the last good book you read?
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
“You are an oncology nurse at heart”

What do you like least about being a nurse?
Feeling a bit helpless when a patient’s situation is dire

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I’d like to see greater advocacy for marginalized people

Leah Geller is a freelance health and science writer in Ottawa.
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