Nov 12, 2019
By Laura Eggertson

Rachel Ollivier: Opening the door on conversations about women’s sexual health

Teckles Photography Inc.

When the nurses and staff at the neonatal unit of Lewanika General Hospital in Mongu, Zambia, were worried about how to rehydrate newborns, Rachel Ollivier listened.

Then the young nurse acted.

Together with another undergraduate student from the University of British Columbia, she worked with her Zambian colleagues to develop a policy on IV fluid resuscitation for newborns, using World Health Organization guidelines and a chart.

“We implemented a policy and a tool that nurses could use to gauge how much fluid to give newborns within 30 days if they needed resuscitation,” Ollivier says.

At the time—2016—Ollivier was doing her final undergraduate practicum in Zambia, through UBC’s School of Nursing (Okanagan). Talking with local nurses, midwives, patients, and doctors about what worked well in the health care system, and what gaps existed, cemented her conviction that partnerships are key to successful global health work. Throughout her subsequent research into cardiovascular health in Zambia and maternal–child health projects in Tanzania, Ollivier has embraced a cooperative, team-based approach to care.

Learning from midwives, healers

Ollivier has learned as much as she has taught, she says. From midwives in Zambia she learned how to check for symptoms of malaria in women who had just given birth. Nursing researchers in Tanzania taught her the importance of clear communication regarding what symptoms signify danger in a pregnancy.

“It was wonderful to hear their perspectives and insights and work with them on something that could improve care,” Ollivier says. “Coming in as a westerner, a Canadian provider, there are a lot of ethical considerations. It’s important to be working in truly collaborative partnerships.”

Although global health is Ollivier’s passion, she is now focusing on women’s post-partum sexual health, at home and abroad. Currently a 25-year-old PhD student in maternal health at Dalhousie University’s School of Nursing in Halifax, NS, Ollivier bridged from her master’s degree there and is now investigating women’s sexual health in Nova Scotia through a feminist lens.

Teckles Photography Inc.“It’s a very special space that we tread as health care providers, taking part in very intimate parts of people’s lives.”

Women’s post-partum sexual health is a neglected topic, Ollivier believes. Research has been focused largely on physical symptoms, such as pain, but not on women’s experiences more broadly.

“Sexual health is a part of health, but it’s often ignored, it’s taboo. I’d like to redefine that,” she says. Her goal is to bring conversations currently happening behind closed doors into the open.

Sexual health services essential

Ollivier’s interest in sexual health was sparked during her undergraduate years, when she volunteered as a counsellor at the Options for Sexual Health Clinic in Kelowna, BC. Patients there received information not only about contraception options, but also about safe sexual practices, consent, how to negotiate relationships, and how to have a sexually healthy life, no matter their sexual orientation.

Ollivier’s goal is to use her research to initiate a broader public conversation about all these issues.

“We need to talk about sexual health in different ways …”

“We need to talk about sexual health in different ways,” she says. “What a 13-year-old wants to know is not the same as what a 60-year-old post-menopausal woman wants to know. These services are essential.”

In addition to her own thesis work on sexual health, Ollivier has been part of research projects looking at the prevalence of hypertension and atrial fibrillation in Zambia, and maternal–child health projects in Tanzania and Jamaica. At Dalhousie, she has been both a research assistant and a teaching assistant.

At 25, Ollivier has racked up an impressive list of academic achievements. She has received doctoral and pre-doctoral scholarships, including a Killam Predoctoral Scholarship, a Dalhousie President’s Award, the Rising Star Award from the Nova Scotia College of Nursing, leadership awards, and academic awards. She also was the valedictorian for her undergraduate nursing class.

Even more impressive are her volunteer credentials. Despite her heavy academic schedule, and working casual shifts at the IWK Health Centre on the Adult Surgical Unit (Women’s Health), Ollivier has made time to serve as a medical attendant at the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia’s annual walk and contribute to the IWK’s Nursing Quality and Research Council. She is co-chair of the Dalhousie Graduate Nursing Society and a student representative on several School of Nursing committees.

Grandmother fostered community service

Ollivier’s sense of community responsibility was fostered by her grandmother, Louisette Ollivier, who provided pastoral care for more than 25 years in Calgary, AB, where Rachel Ollivier grew up. Louisette, who sometimes took care of her grandchildren, would bring them with her when she visited people at the hospitals.

“I saw the connections she made and the smile she put on people’s faces when she came into the room,” Ollivier says. “It’s a very special space that we tread as health care providers, taking part in very intimate parts of people’s lives. It’s an immense privilege, and it’s what has kept me in nursing and will, hopefully, keep my passion alive for years to come.”

To balance her full schedule of studying, work, and community service, Ollivier likes to run, hike, swim, and spend as much time outdoors as possible. When she’s studying, she listens to classical piano music to help her focus, but Beyoncé gets her on the dance floor. She visits her parents in Alberta three times a year, trying to go for at least a month at a time, and is also closely connected to her younger sister and brother.

Ollivier doesn’t have much time to read just for fun, she says—the most recent book she enjoyed was Neurosurgery in Calgary: The First Fifty Years by Doris Annear, Audrey Cerkvenac, and Moira Hogg. The book is about the importance of interdisciplinary teamwork—Ollivier’s mantra.

Learning from others keeps her inspired, and her family and friends fuel everything Ollivier does, she says.

“There are a lot of invisible hands and minds—thesis co-supervisors, family, friends, my unit manager— they all play different parts in helping me to do my best,” Ollivier says. “A lot of people don’t have that, and I recognize my fortunate and privileged position in being able to go after my dreams.”

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Wolfville, NS.
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