May 06,2016
By Samantha Blackburn, BScN, RN, FAI

Making her career her own

Samantha Blackburn’s message to new RNs: follow your heart, take risks and have confidence in your ability to adapt

“And what do you do?” It’s what people generally ask when they initially meet you. It’s difficult to answer the question in one or two words without feeling like you’re shortchanging yourself, whether you’re a teacher, sales associate, stay-at-home parent, makeup artist or personal coach. Those few words never quite seem to amount to the vision we have of ourselves.

“I’m a registered nurse.”

There just seems to be a disconnect between what I say I do and what I actually do. In my mind, I’m capable of doing so many different things, and my work, hopefully, translates that thought into action.

My career path has led me to unimaginable places. You’re probably thinking that I’m far too young and inexperienced to make a bold statement like that. But here’s my story. In April 2012, I graduated from McMaster University with a bachelor of science in nursing. Within six days of obtaining my RN registration, I was hired as an OR nurse and anesthetic assistant. Less than a year later, I was head RN and manager of the office I worked in. Now, I manage the nursing staff at three family medical practices and liaise with the other clinical staff. I have also written and published a cookbook, so I’m an author, I’m a CPR instructor for the Red Cross and I’m a workplace liaison for the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. Basically, I’m a Jill of all trades.

I try to stay as humble as possible about my career success. But I’ve been invited to speak about my career path at several institutions, including Western University, so I must be doing something right — or, at least, something different.

I didn’t always feel I had the experience to take on the things I did, but now I realize that you just need to be willing to follow your heart, take risks and be confident about your ability to adapt. It was Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, who said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

When I started in the nursing program, I hated it; and, in all honesty, the further I got into the program, the more I hated it. I thought of it as my prison sentence. But would I do it again? Absolutely, because it led me to where I am now. In university, I never truly fit the mould of a typical nursing student. I constantly questioned the system that delivers health care, the underlying causes of chronic illness in the general population and the lagging acceptance of technological advances in the clinical setting. All the while, my classmates were more task oriented — focused on how to take blood glucose readings, do dressing changes and give injections. My professors found my obsession with systems, theories and technology perplexing. One even said to me, “You’re in the wrong program; why aren’t you in business or health informatics or nutrition?” So by the time I graduated, I felt slightly disillusioned about the direction my nursing career might take. And I felt discouraged, to say the least. Then I remembered that quotation about power.

I took my frustration and turned it into motivation. Instead of working in a hospital or concentrating on disease management, I contributed to health promotion by writing a vegan, gluten-free cookbook, and I started a website, which allowed me to participate in asynchronous health discussions. What’s more, I took my passion for developing systems and frameworks and for improving health-care delivery and applied it at the clinics I’ve worked for. I’ve integrated technology by developing iPad systems that patients use to fill out forms, which alleviated the burden on receptionists to transcribe the information. And I’ve used social media as a teaching aid and marketing tool. Who knew you could actually get paid for using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? In my current position, policy development is one of my primary roles. I organize systems and write policies and procedures that serve the needs of patients and employees. So somewhere along the way, my career path brought me to exactly where my passion lies, and I do exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.

Looking back, I think I felt trapped in my career before it had even started. But I took my profession and made it my own, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m forever grateful for the choices I’ve made, and the opportunities they have led to. The key to success is to take what you love and what people will pay you to do and find a place where the two meet. All you have to do is begin somewhere. Find what you love about your job, and use it to shape your career. You can’t build a reputation on what you intend to do, so take risks, dream big and follow your heart. So when people ask you what you do, you can say, “Exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Samantha Blackburn, BScN, RN, FAI, is clinical manager and privacy officer, Franklin Family Health Organization, Cambridge, Ont.

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