Jun 01, 2015
By Leah Geller

Stepping into her comfort zone

Jennifer MacKinnon is transforming her health and her life

Teckles Photography Inc.

The moment of awakening for Jennifer MacKinnon is etched clearly in her mind. “It was just over two years ago and my son was eight,” she explains. “His pediatrician told us that we needed to watch his weight and to get on it right away.”

MacKinnon and her husband have insulin-dependent diabetes, so their son was at risk. They weren’t an active family, and they didn’t always eat right.

“People say that we nurses should know better, but, like many people, I needed that ‘aha moment’ to get moving. We are so busy giving to everyone, our own health often gets put on the back burner.”

With some of her nursing colleagues at Charlottetown’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH), MacKinnon joined the go!PEI Walk a Lot program, which encourages participants to log their progress and offers free registration in the P.E.I. Marathon. Her workplace group entered the marathon’s 10-kilometre event last fall.

“I was really pumped after that and started looking around for other walks,” she says. When she saw that Team Diabetes — a fundraising arm of the Canadian Diabetes Association — is hosting a 16-kilometre hike on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, she was thrilled. “Taking part isn’t just about raising money for a worthwhile cause,” says MacKinnon. “It’s also a big step toward improving my health and providing a good example for my son.” And, she adds, Hawaii has been on her bucket list for some time.

Before the hike, which takes place in September, each participant has to raise $6,100 through the Team Diabetes website. So far, MacKinnon has raised almost $5,000 through a 50/50 draw and raffles at work, a community bingo she organized and a yard sale at home.

Her husband is training with her and will be cheering her on in Hawaii. Her stamina has progressed to the point that she is walking 10 kilometres three times a week, on the Confederation Trail or along the beach. The couple often bring their son and their dog along.

“I have a long way to go,” explains MacKinnon. “I am still overweight, but I feel a lot healthier than I did last fall. I also feel like I’m in a better frame of mind, which makes a difference in my work. My relationships with patients, colleagues and friends are a lot better than before. And when I talk to patients about lifestyle changes, I feel like I’m finally practising what I’m preaching.”

MacKinnon knew she wanted to be a nurse from the age of six, when she was hospitalized for months at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax for pseudotumor cerebri, presenting with all the symptoms of a brain tumour with no actual tumour. “I remember following nurses around and helping out where I could. I saw a lot, and that really pulled me to the profession.”

After completing her nursing studies in French at the Université de Moncton in 1996, she returned to the Island to practise. She worked her first few years in casual and temporary nursing positions in small community hospitals and a long-term care facility, all the while taking courses and workshops to get her up to speed on palliative care, dementia, trauma, health assessments and new technologies. Continuous learning has since become a way of life.

MacKinnon eventually moved to Charlottetown to take a position as the bilingual RN on a general surgery floor of the QEH. When the transition to computerized charting began, she found a new area to pursue. Teaching the technology to nursing colleagues and providing direct care was an ideal combination for her. By 2012, though, she was looking for new challenges. Cutting back to part time allowed her to start picking up shifts elsewhere. Pre-surgery provided more opportunities to educate patients. She now works full time, rotating through the same day surgery area (comprising pre-surgery, day surgery and eye surgery).

“It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really put myself out there,” MacKinnon says. “I’ve changed jobs and moved into work that requires a different focus on patients and their care. And I’m totally changing my lifestyle.” These days, instead of relaxing in front of the TV on a weekend, she is likely to be out trout fishing or playing hockey with her son. Last summer, she bought a second-hand tent and went camping for the first time. “I was never an outdoorsy girl, but I’ve discovered that camping and kayaking are great fun.” She has also become more conscious of the kinds of meals she prepares. She’s doing more chopping and dicing and less heating up of processed food.

“I feel better, I have more energy and I find my life and work more fulfilling. I’m doing it for our son, and I’m doing it for me.”

10 questions with Jennifer MacKinnon

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I would give myself thicker hair on the front of my head

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
I am proudest of the way my son is turning out so far. After he’s 16, I’ll take credit for his good habits only!

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I have a tattoo, acquired during my university years

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Learn to make pottery

Where did you go on your last vacation?
New York City

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.

What was the last good book you read?
The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Keeping your facial expressions to a minimum and using your inside voice may keep you out of a lot of trouble

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I think we should get the facts about the consequences of drug use out to kids at a young age

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