Two registered nurses who don’t let obstacles stand in their way

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One of the first things patients notice about Lisa McKay is the set of white, DJ-calibre headphones she sports around her neck or over her ears at Pembroke Regional Hospital’s ER intensive care unit. The RN uses them because she has severe hearing loss: 70 per cent in one ear; up to 60 per cent in the other. McKay wears hearing aids, but they don’t pick up the low range sound of a heartbeat or a patient’s breathing. So she pops them out and uses an electronic stethoscope (or, e-scope) that amplifies sound, connecting it to her trendy headphones.

 

At least once a day, curious patients or staffers ask: “Why do you wear those?” Teenagers say the headphones are “really cool.” But for McKay, they’re not a style statement. They’re one of the reasons she is able to practise as an RN. “I thought there would be no way I could work in an emergency department,” she says. “And (here) I am.”

 

McKay was born with hearing loss. When she was three-years-old, her mother realized something was wrong when her daughter hadn’t started talking. Diagnosed shortly after this discovery, McKay has worn hearing aids ever since. Now 38, she relies on closed captioning on television and cranks the volume on telephones and IV pump machines. If the latter starts beeping, she’ll ask the patient to use the call bell. She also reads lips, a task that can prove troublesome if the speaker is wearing a mask. Colleagues sometimes forget to face her when they’re talking, and McKay is forced to dash ahead of them to watch their mouths move. She’ll remind them to look at her and speak slowly, and says they have been receptive, supportive and helpful. Her manager is investigating ways to add to McKay’s arsenal of support, and is looking into the possibility of a device that vibrates when a patient presses a call bell. “Little things like that help,” she says.

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Nursing isn’t McKay’s first career. In fact, she worked as a massage therapist for a year-and-a-half, until 2000, when she learned she had melanoma. Currently clear of cancer, McKay reflects on the eye-opening experience that made her think “this (job) is not something I want to do for the rest of my life.” The diagnosis may have triggered her decision to leave her job as a massage therapist, but McKay says she’s always been fascinated by the human body. While pregnant with her two sons, she turned to the Internet, following their evolution from fetus to newborn. But even when she was in massage therapy school, McKay admits she enjoyed anatomy, physiology and pathology courses.

 

When the family moved to Petawawa in 2006, she had already been looking to enroll in a nursing program. She heard about the University of Ottawa and Algonquin College’s collaborative BScN program – classes were 20 minutes away in Pembroke – on the radio. “I always wanted my degree, and it just seemed like an interesting fit,” she explains. “It never occurred to me in high school or elementary school to pursue (nursing).”

 

Almost immediately after learning of her acceptance into the program, McKay ran into a roadblock. Her hearing aid specialist encouraged her to “find a new career” following one unsuccessful attempt to find an e-scope before classes began. “I cried for a day-and-a-half after that,” she recalls. It was her husband who said “we’ll find something that works.”

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The couple researched e-scopes, and shortly before she began her studies, he found the headphones she still uses today. In anticipation of the challenges she might face in the classroom, McKay went to student services, asking: “What can you do to help me?” They drew up an individual learning plan, offering note takers and preferred seating.

 

In April 2013, McKay graduated with the University of Ottawa Silver Medal for receiving the second highest grade point average in the nursing program. Ten months later, she completed her first permanent shift at Pembroke Regional Hospital. She says she’s lucky to have support from family and friends, and encourages those with hearing loss who might be considering a career in nursing to just keep trying to find a way to work around the condition. “Hopefully, (those who are hard of hearing) will realize that (nursing) is an option.”

 

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At first, Lorrie Reynolds wasn’t completely troubled by what seemed like benign lower back pain two summers ago. The then-43-year-old avid runner – she used to clock 10 kilometres on a run – had just returned to her BondHead home after spending two weeks at the family cottage waterskiing and playing ball hockey. She assumed the pain was related to her sciatic nerve.

 

Then, her left knee began to repeatedly give out. In the early hours of July 16, 2012, when she woke up to go to the bathroom, Reynolds was alarmed to discover her left leg had lost all sensation from the knee down. She gingerly made her way back into the bedroom to wake her husband. “I know I’m being silly,” she said, “but can we go to the hospital?”

 

Doctors discovered a mass of blood vessels clumped around the seventh thoracic vertebra in her spinal cord, right below her breasts: a cavernoma that had hemorrhaged. The pressure on the spinal cord resulted in Reynolds being paralyzed from her toes to her upper rib cage. Sixteen days later, the RN of 23 years, who was, and still is, director of maternal child/professional practice and deputy chief of nursing at Newmarket’s Southlake Regional Health Centre, woke up from surgery. The paralysis was permanent.

 

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According to Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, there are more than 33,000 people living with a spinal cord injury. Never in her wildest dreams did Reynolds think she would be one of those statistics. “I was just stunned, just shocked,” she says.

 

Less than a month after her operation, she was transferred to rehab, where she pushed herself to boost her upper body strength as well as learn the techniques required to transfer from her wheelchair to a shower chair every day. She attributes her determination to the competitive streak that runs in her family. But her journey hasn’t been without obstacles. She fell once at rehab. “I felt like a child. I had to call to get someone to help pick me up,” she remembers, adding that the experience was empowering, especially after her physiotherapist praised her for her resolve.

 

At another point, while discussing her commitment to physiotherapy, a physician told her she was wasting her time and money. “I’m around people in wheelchairs, and (this is important for) my emotional and spiritual healing,” she told him. “I might not be cured, but I’m healing.” The following visit, he changed his tune, encouraging her to keep up the good work. After two months at a rehabilitation facility, Reynolds was discharged and ready to adjust to a new normal.

 

She sits at the edge of the bed and rolls onto her stomach to slip on pants. She drives using hand-held controls. Nothing is as it once was, but she’s grateful she has the support of her family. Her husband renovated the home and cottage to accommodate a wheelchair by widening doorways and adding lifts and roll-in shower stalls.

 

Reynolds’ next objective was to get back to work. She returned to an accessible office and accompanying bathroom on a modified schedule in April 2013, and went full-time three months later. “They really embraced me,” she says of her colleagues, who refer to her as “hot wheels,” as she races down the hospital hallways. In an effort to motivate health-care professionals to reflect on their own practice and leadership style – and on the patient’s perspective – Reynolds shares the details of her journey in presentations to colleagues. She’s spoken to Southlake’s nurse practitioners, fourth-year York University nursing students, and members of the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario.

 

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She talks about the nurse who offered to wash her hair. “I can’t tell you how good it felt. She wasn’t curing my illness, but she was really helping me to heal.” She remembers the nurses who, after coming in to run tests, allowed Reynolds’ daughters and husband to stay in bed with her. Or the staff who allowed her mother to show up every morning at 8:30 with breakfast and a back rub, well before visiting hours.

 

“I always used to say everything happens for a reason and I (spent) time trying to find a reason for this (paralysis),” she says of her struggle to make sense of things. “If I can bring that patient perspective and try to influence the care we deliver, then that’s my silver lining.”