Fearlessness and mentorship: A recipe for success

Sheryl Bernard achieved her goals by being bold, and following the guidance of outstanding leaders.

Sheryl Bernard still remembers her struggles as a 19-year-old single mom back in the mid-1980s. Financially, she was on her own while attending college full-time to be a lab tech assistant, and commuting by bus to take her son to daycare. She recalls one miserable day that made her rethink her life. She got on the bus “…with this big, clunky stroller…and no one really offered to help me,” she says. “I remember saying to myself: this will not be my life.”

That day was pivotal for Bernard. Later that same week, she applied for a job as a secretary for The Scarborough Hospital (TSH) and was successful. It was there she had her first real encounter with .

“I…was impressed by three nurses…Edna Smith, Collette Simpson and Marilyn Matheson…I just watched them and I said to myself: ‘That is the job I want to do,’” says Bernard.

She was not shy about asking if she could be mentored, and all three nurses happily agreed.

In 1990, Bernard applied to George Brown College and was accepted into the nursing program as a 23-year-old mature student. It was not easy juggling a new marriage, motherhood, work and part-time school, especially when Bernard welcomed her second child in her third year, and had to be hospitalized with severe hyperemesis. Thanks to her supportive nursing professor, Heather Stewart, she was able to overcome her setbacks and complete her studies.  


After graduating in 1996 with her nursing diploma, she began working part-time in respirology at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital and on a med-surg unit at TSH. But she was always thinking about what she had set out to achieve when she first entered nursing school: to become a nurse leader. When a new unit opened at TSH in 1999, she jumped at the chance to be a charge nurse. Within a year, she became the unit’s patient care manager.

In her search to learn more about the profession, Bernard read about Sue Matthews, provincial chief nurse for Ontario from 2004 to 2006. Once again, she did not let fear get in her way, and called Matthews to ask her if she would be her mentor. Matthews agreed.

Thinking back, the long-time member of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario () says her fearlessness is how she has achieved her goals in life. “Everything you want is on the other side of fear,” she says. To conquer it, you have to “…pick up the phone…you have to put your own self forward.”

With Matthews’ guidance, Bernard finished her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Charles Sturt University in 2005. She also continued to take advantage of opportunities to further her leadership skills, and discovered RNAO’s Nursing Leadership Network (NLN) conferences, where she met another mentor: RNAO’s former president, Joan Lesmond.

Lesmond pushed her to complete her Certified Health Executive (CHE) and encouraged her to complete her master’s degree. She also had Lesmond to thank for taking that final leap to become a nursing director. “I had worked as a manager for about seven years (and she told me) it’s time for you to move on…” says Bernard.


When an opportunity opened at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences, Bernard had her doubts. Still finishing her CHE and master’s, a new position sounded daunting. “You have absolutely nothing to lose by applying,” Lesmond told her.

Now in her 10th year as director for the geriatric and neuropsychiatry program at Ontario Shores, and halfway through her doctoral studies, Bernard can see the impact fearlessness and have had on her success.

At 49, she has raised three children to become educated individuals with aspirations in music, health and business. She has also paid it forward by helping to mentor nursing students and pushing them to achieve their own nursing goals. Through it all, Bernard doesn’t forget her past struggles. “I still go back to that moment,” she says of the difficult bus ride as a single mother. She’s come a long way, and will be forever grateful to the mentors who have come into her life.