Sep 02,2015
By Laura Eggertson

The Ward women of the Northwest Territories

Three daughters follow in their mother’s footsteps. Now, all four are back in the North.

Not all nurses can point to the moment and the person who inspired their future career. But for Sarah Marrai, the seeds were planted the day she accompanied her mother to the labour and delivery room and watched a baby being born.

Sarah was 10 years old and it was Take Your Kids to Work Day. Her mother, Susan Ward, was an experienced obstetrical RN employed at the Brantford General Hospital in Brantford, Ont. Although Sarah and her two younger sisters often visited their mother at work over the years to peer through the nursery windows at sleeping infants, that particular day was pivotal in Sarah’s decision to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a labour and delivery nurse.

“I just found it fascinating,” Sarah says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a pretty cool thing that my mom gets to be part of every day.’”

The warm feeling she experienced that day as she witnessed the new parents’ happiness stayed with Sarah when she started nursing school. She knew what her specialty would be. “I liked the appeal of obstetrics being such a happy place to work and yet still being exhilarating and giving you that adrenalin rush,” she says from Yellowknife, where both she and her mother live.

Sarah, now 32, may have been drawn to her future specialty from an early age, but what she did not know then was that she would be just one of three Ward sisters to follow in their mother’s footsteps. Melissa Ward, 30, and Emma Fogarty, 27 , are also RNs. All three credit their career choice to their mother’s example of enjoying her work, taking great satisfaction in helping others and making the job sound exciting and rewarding.

“It surprised me that all of us chose the same profession, but it goes to show my mom had good things to say about it when we were growing up,” Sarah says.

Those good things included the stories Susan told her daughters about helping deliver babies and caring for their mothers at maternity wards across Canada during her 35-year career. From her hometown of Brantford to Yellowknife, with stops in between in Yukon and in Edmonton, Red Deer and Maskwacis, Alta., Susan particularly enjoyed her stints as a northern labour and delivery nurse. She prefers working in the North, where she says, “the people appreciate your efforts a little bit more” than in larger urban centres. “Every little thing you do helps and counts.”

While the daughters saw their mother working 12-hour shifts, holidays and weekends, none of Susan’s experiences discouraged any of them from joining the profession. They grew up seeing her coming off a night shift and staying awake to take them to school or catching naps between feeding them lunch and driving them to or from classes.

“They also saw the positive side of it, the flexibility — the diversity of nursing. Everywhere we ever moved, I was able to get a job,” Susan says. “I’m very proud of them because they’re hard-working girls and they give all they have to the jobs they do.”

Since 2000, Susan has worked in public health. As a nurse for the Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority, she helps new mothers adjust to parenthood, conducts well-baby visits and staffs infant health clinics. Susan sometimes crosses paths on the job with Sarah when she follows up on patients her daughter cared for at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife.

But their interactions pale compared to those of Emma and Melissa, who not only both work at the 55-bed Inuvik Regional Hospital in Inuvik, N.W.T., but also sometimes care for patients side by side in the six-bed emergency department.

Initially, the thought of working with her younger sister daunted Melissa. She knew Emma’s previous experience in a larger ED in an urban Alberta hospital would give her a different set of skills than her own. At the same time, Melissa also recognized that her greater years of practice might intimidate Emma.

“I didn’t ever want her to feel that I knew more than she did,” Melissa says. “I knew there were things she would be able to teach me and things I would be able to teach her.” As it turned out, “I think we work quite well together.”

Their sibling bond has been a benefit to them and their patients, as was evident on one of their first shifts together shortly after Melissa arrived in Inuvik. That day, five minutes after a patient was rushed into the ED, he went into cardiac arrest. The emergency team needed to resuscitate and stabilize him so they could medevac him south.

“We had not worked together in as critical a situation as that before,” Melissa says.

Almost without speaking, the sisters knew what role each would play. Melissa began chest compressions while Emma prepared the defibrillator pads so they could stimulate the patient’s heart back into rhythm. After a few moments of seamless care, they stabilized their patient.

“I don’t think we said a whole lot to each other until it was over and then we looked at each other — and that was that,” Melissa says. “It was neat to be able to say that we had done that together and to have people compliment us on what a great team we were.”

For Emma, that example of the critical impact nursing care can make is just one of the reasons she enjoys working in the North. She is often the only nurse on duty in the ED at night. A doctor is on call but isn’t in the hospital and there are no respiratory therapists or pharmacists on duty to consult. The responsibility can be daunting. “I remember starting here and being very scared,” Emma says.

Now, having worked at the Inuvik hospital for two years, Emma is more comfortable with the greater autonomy she has. “I love that I am on my own and I have to use all of my brain and all of my knowledge.”

She also enjoys getting to know her patients better than she would in a large southern city — knowledge that is sometimes critically important in noticing health conditions that a visiting doctor might not spot. It is also helpful having Melissa nearby to socialize with and to lean on when she has a bad day.

Now, when the Ward family get together, they share the bond of their common careers and experiences and can support each other through the tough times, when one has lost a patient or another has a particularly tough shift.

“The four of us — we get it,” Emma says. “I’m really lucky to have three people I can turn to when I need them.”

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.

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