The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on our frontline health care workers. Some may wonder what compels someone to choose a career that could, in circumstances such as these, put their own health and well-being at risk. Two uLethbridge alumnae and faculty members in our Faculty of Health Sciences' Department of Nursing prove a nurse’s intrinsic desire to help. To care. To heal. Tracy Oosterbroek  (MSc '09; BN '95; pictured left) and Karen Rowles (MEd '02; BN '94; pictured right) immediately volunteered to return to the front lines when they heard news of the pandemic.

“I used to work in ICU so when this started happening I just put it out there that I’d be willing and interested in volunteering to help in any way I can,” says Oosterbroek, an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing since 2002. “They won’t need us for a while yet, and if we keep the curve flat, they may not need us. So that would be ideal, if we can keep the infections down.”

Oosterbroek inspired colleague Rowles to do the same, offering her services in a time of need.

“I’ve kept up with the skill and the knowledge base, so it seemed like it would be a good transition for me to help where needed,” says Rowles, who has been teaching at the University since 2009, remaining a casual frontline nurse until earlier this year.

Both instructors were not scheduled to teach in May and June so the timing was right based on predictions for the peak of the pandemic. When Health Sciences Dean, Dr. Robert Wood, heard of their intentions he went one step further in supporting their desire to return to the front lines.

“When I passed it by Robert to ensure it was okay that I'm even doing this, he graciously offered to readjust my clinical teaching workload over the summer in the event that pandemic went until the end of August,” shares Rowles. “Now my teaching load has been shifted so I can better balance my duties at the U of L with the opportunity to assist where needed with Alberta Health Services.”

Oosterbroek and Rowles, along with their families, had to consider the pros and cons of entering a pandemic setting understanding the risks involved.

“I had to do some real soul searching because I live with an elderly parent, I have a son with a chronic condition,” continues Rowles. “I have a daughter out in Toronto working frontline in the ER department, and she sort of said to me, what are you doing mom? But at the end of the day I said, I've got help where required. It was sort of that calling.”

Oosterbroek and Rowles have worked in a variety of hospital units, and continue to work in the clinical setting as instructors. With a passion for their role as educators, they also note the intrinsic draw back to the bedside care of patients.

“I don't think I could solely instruct in a classroom. The patient contact is what keeps me going and keeps me inspired,” says Rowles. “It pulls me back, like a magnet. So, this does feel like an opportunity to get back in there and give back and support my colleagues.”

Oosterbroek agrees that working directly with patients is part of the motivation to return to the frontlines. “I really love the patient contact. That is what really filled my tank, was connection with the patients. Sometimes we can't make a difference in their health outcome, but we can make a difference in their healthcare experience. That to me is what it's all about.”

On top of the desire to help patients, their thoughts are also with their colleagues working day in and day out on the front lines.

“I had to take the opportunity to help where required because, roles reversed, if I were an ICU nurse, it would be great to know I had collegial support, fellow colleagues that were willing to step in when capacity was an issue,” says Oosterbroek. “It's just that innate drive or desire to be present and to contribute any way we can. I feel that we're safe in that environment and it's almost like we're obligated to do it if we can.”

As nurses, teachers, and community members, Rowles and Oosterbroek also emphasize the role that every one of us can play in supporting our frontline workers.

“Individually we can really make a difference,” says Oosterbroek. “First, by staying home we're protecting ourselves and others. And we all contribute to that. Every single person who stays home, washes their hands, is making a difference in the same way that we're making a difference going and helping out in the hospital. All of these things matter. They all make a difference.”