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My best friend is a nurse. From the moment she stepped into her first Ryerson nursing class six years ago as a fresh-faced, first-year to the last two years she’s worked in the ER, I’ve never come across someone so passionate about her job.

She’ll sometimes casually say “Yes, I save lives,” chuckling under her breath whenever someone asks her what she does for a living. And she’ll always share stories—the happy, sad, and strange—to which I’ll notice how much she really does make a difference in caring for others.

Health care is a huge industry for women, with nearly 1.8 million women employed in the Canadian health care and social assistance sector in 2013, (almost five times more than men working in the same industry).

Making a difference

As a motivated, third-year health sciences student, Nicola Paviglianiti took it upon herself to go beyond the requirements of the Western University program she was enrolled in, and found herself interning for the United Nations in Thailand.

Travelling to over 40 countries with her parents from a young age, she became inspired to get into the field from the diversity of people she met along the way. “I’ve experienced a lot of cool things and developed a passion for helping others in enabling them to be the best they can be,” she explains. “Health care isn’t only about medicine; it’s about the bigger picture and making an impact.”

Researching opportunities and having no luck in finding something fit for her, Paviglianiti decided she’d create her own internship until she finally got the nod from the UN.

“I worked for the UN under UNESCO in the HIV AIDS health promotion unit,” she says, where she worked for six weeks helping with policy papers and writing newspaper articles. “What I found most impactful was having the opportunity to help with developing health promotion programs for Thai secondary schools in regards to their sex education curriculum.”

Still unsure of her career focus after graduation and just starting the third year of her program this September, Paviglianiti says her general health sciences degree allows her to get a taste of what the health sector has to offer.

She recommends other students in her position not refrain from exploring their options within the field. “There are so many amazing opportunities for learning if you are passionate and motivated and put yourself out there,” she says. “For example, with some hard work and research I created my own internship that ended up changing my life.”

The road to nursing

It wasn’t until her first year at Western University as a bachelor of health sciences student that Kendra Dziuba knew she wanted to be a nurse. Her transition from health sciences to nursing was more of a challenge than expected, but through building professional relationships with professors and pushing herself academically, she is now studying nursing in the Western University and Fanshawe College collaborative program.

“I have become grounded in my education, as before I dealt with many feelings of doubt and anxiety as a health sciences student,” she explains, but admits there are obstacles to overcome in order to progress not only as a student, but also as a future nurse.

Through her studies, she quickly learned what it meant to be a good nurse. “It is realizing that the whole patient is the focus, not just their illness or disease,” says Dziuba. “Caring is an important aspect taught in the program, and it is strongly advocated that nurses must elicit trust, respect, empathy, professional intimacy, and power.”

As a changing industry that requires interaction and empathy, Dziuba says health care is a natural fit for women. “Women are natural caregivers and health care is an environment that needs caring, compassionate individuals,” she explains. “Every work environment is different, so if women are able to address their strengths of their personality early on, it can lead them to the right role.”

The payoff

For the last 10 years, Lesley Donaldson-Reid has been working as an emergency nurse. As a seasoned health care professional, she has an academic background in nursing and human biology and also has experience in adult acute medicine and working as an agency nurse.

What drew Donaldson-Reid to the field was the responsibility of helping others. “I used to volunteer with St. John Ambulance because I’m the kind of person who jumps up to help during a crisis,” she says. “I’m most rewarded at work when I’ve helped guide a patient or family towards a healthier lifestyle, or helped a person through critical illness.”

Being the decision maker for vulnerable populations while managing the changing demands of the health care system is just one challenge Donaldson-Reid has faced during her time in the industry. She had a difficult time putting the industry’s perceptions of health care ahead of her own after the birth of her premature son.

During her time as a “care receiver,” she was able to see the industry from a different point-of-view, and translated her experiences in her upcoming book, Growing a Rainbow. “Health care needs more support from all levels of government,” she explains. “If we want our patients to feel unique and cared for as individuals, the same is true of the people who provide that care.”

But through her nursing experience, she suggests that young women shouldn’t be afraid to explore new zones within the field and also be patient with self-expectation when it comes time to start a family. “You don’t have to get all your degrees at the same time as having your new babies!” she says. “Nursing is always evolving and you can find new avenues throughout your career. It’s also important to know how to find and make the relationships which will give you the nursing career that you desire.”

Photo: Vextok/Thinkstock, Anthony Capano