Hospital News’ Nursing Hero Contest Winner: Rebecca Gonser

First Place Winner: Rebecca Gonser, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre (C5 – Trauma Unit

1st Nomination

Rebecca and I have worked together on C5, for the past 4 years. Initially, I met Rebecca when she was a student on C5. It did not take long for our manager and others to recognize her vigor, and she was quickly hired onto our unit and seamlessly became an active and respected member of our C5 family. If you’re reading this, you can begin to understand why in my books she is already a nursing hero, let alone a superhuman. Her achievements are most definitely applaudable, however, this is not the reason why I have nominated my colleague for this award. I am nominating her because of the type of nurse she is and what she represents, in order for others to have a role model and a clear definition of what the gold-standard of nursing care looks like.

With her patients, there is no one like Rebecca. Her empathy and understanding of her patient’s and the human condition, matched with her ability to manufacture creative solutions/ interventions to improve their care, is truly remarkable. Rebecca is the type of nurse who is able to level and communicate with that closed off or “difficult” or “non-compliant” patient; appreciate their voices; recognize their needs; and proceed to bring in her personal collection of nail polish, word searches, music, homemade gifts/ assistive devices, you name it– all in the effort of improving her (or her colleagues for that matter) patients’ experience at Sunnybrook (sorry for the world’s largest run-on sentence).

On C5, we routinely work with patients with Spinal Cord Injuries. Rebecca took an early interest in bettering her knowledge and care for this patient population (I have LOADS of stories to defend this). I will never forget Rebecca’s relationship with one patient, who was a female quadriplegic with limited family in Toronto. This patient, in particular, had little trust in Sunnybrook, partly to do with some unfortunate and unpredictable incidents, but largely to do with the nature of her helplessness in her situation. Her lack of trust in the staff, made nurses fearful and unreceptive to working with this patient, however, Becks took on the opposite outlook, and made “Ms. Y”, a problem and patient to be solved and aided, respectively. Communication was a huge concern for “Ms. Y “ — with her tracheostomy, English as her second language, and physical limitation, communication was HARD. Rebecca, quickly recognized this as a barrier for the patient, and would create communication boards, specially tailored call-bells and communication strategies to remedy this. Boredom was another factor for this patient. When Rebecca found out that her favourite artist was Adele, I’m guessing you can imagine which songs could be heard from the nursing station originating from Ms. Y’s room, all thank to Rebecca. Adel must have been a REALLY nice change from the numbing sound of the humidified O2 blowing in Ms. Y’s ear. Ultimately, after many months of being in the ICU and on C5, it came time for rehab for this patient. Rebecca came in on her day off (uncompensated) to escort this patient of ours who had developed a certain trust and relationship with Rebecca to tour the rehab facility she was pended for. To this day, I am sure, Ms Y would never have trusted this new facility, and would never have consented to leaving Sunnybrook, without the reassurance, support and care of my friend Rebecca Gonser.

Rebecca is four years younger than me, and I swear, I have learned more about life and nursing from this individual than I would ever be able to teach her.


Emma Beairsto, RN, C5 Trauma Unit, Team Leader


Rebecca Gonser is the kind of nurse you would want to have if you ever needed to be in hospital. She starts her shift with a smile and she gets to know each of her patients for the person they are, not their diagnosis and treatment. She brings an energy to the unit that is unmatched by any other staff member. You can see from her interactions with every person on the unit, she loves what she does.

She is a leader amongst our nurses, despite only working for four years. She mentors young nurses, tirelessly promotes quality improvement initiatives and takes special interest in trauma patients and their care, especially those who have sustained a spinal cord injury.

Rebecca is a remarkable nurse, blending her nursing knowledge and expertise with her knowledge of people, and what will make a difference in their day. For example, she was caring for a man who sustained a spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia. Rebecca began her day as she always does, ensuring her patients’ needs were met, and that she was caring for them according to best practice. She began this gentleman’s morning care and then as she was getting to know him, she asked what type of music he likes listening to. He said he likes country music and she responded, “well you have found the right girl”. She turned on her phone and played one of her favourite country music playlists while she got him ready for the day, something that had never been done for him before. This small act made such a difference for that man that day – she gave him the power to control something in his environment which is challenging in a hospital setting. She continued his care and noted that he was starting to develop a pressure injury. It was in the early stages, but this could be detrimental to his recovery. Rebecca made it her mission to ensure this was cared for properly and did not progress any further. She applied a dressing, made signs to place in his room for proper positioning, she searched for extra pillows (which are always impossible to find!) and she added important information to the nursing handover sheet for the next nurses caring for him. Within one week, the pressure injury resolved.

Rebecca’s devotion to patients and nurses is astounding. She is a fantastic nurse, and a positive force to work with.

Sincerely, Caitlin Cornish , RN

3rd Nomination

Rebecca consistently goes over and above every day!  She generously offered to be a regular primary nurse for a patient, Buddy (not his real name), who was a high school student who was involved in a very bad car crash, resulting in a severe head injury.  As a result of his head injury he was disinhibited, and verbally and physically abusive towards staff and his family.  Because of his size, his propensity to hit out and kick out, and his ongoing slew of verbal abuse it was challenging to find nurses who wanted to care for him.  However, because of his behaviour he also derived benefit from consistent nurses.  Rebecca stepped up to the plate to act as a primary nurse and to care for him, redirect him and to encourage him to take part in his care, to become more independent, to demonstrate that he could go to a rehabilitation hospital.

She played a pivotal role through her skilled nursing, and positive attitude, with a ready smile, that Buddy was able to achieve his goal and go to a Rehabilitation Centre, where he eventually recovered well enough to return home and to school.

Rebecca also stands out as she is always willing to take on new learning and challenges.  She has sought out training to become one of our few skilled nurses to provide very specialized education and care to patients, their families and staff about spinal cord injuries.  She is on the Hospital Emergency Response Team for Sunnybrook.  She participates as an educator in the PARTY program (Prevent Alcohol Related Trauma in Youth) a program developed at SHSC.  She is an instructor in the Stop the Bleed Course at SHSC, and facilitated training to new educators.  She participates in Quality Improvement Projects and Practice Based Research.  She is also a member of the Practice Council.  She participates in the BIST run (Brain Injury Support Toronto) on a regular basis, encouraging others to join in.

Janna Di Pinto MSW, RSW Social Worker, Trauma


4th Nomination

This story about an extraordinary nurse is so valuable considering today’s focus on violence and health care workers. Right from the start, I knew she would have a positive impact on patient care and on interprofessional relationships. It is rare to see a young nurse with such confidence and comfort in working on a diverse interprofessional team. The following story is a perfect example of how Rebecca has become a nursing hero…for all staff.

We recently had an incident on the floor where a code white was called and the team was confronted with a violent and high risk scenario involving a patient and multiple family members in the hallway of the unit. Both hospital security and the Toronto Police were called to diffuse this situation. The staff working at the time and the patients on the floor witnessed some shocking verbal and physical violence, and for a period of time before police arrived, the hospital security team was struggling to control the situation. By all accounts, staff felt out of control and vulnerable.

As a team, we debriefed the next day in what we call a ‘code lavender’, where a colleague from spiritual care leads a group discussion to diffuse tension and discuss our feelings. Rebecca, along with many other nurses and allied health professionals attended this session, where feelings of fear of workplace violence were shared openly and honestly by almost all of the staff in the room. Because of the severity of the incident, a second debrief was held later in the day with many of the same unit-level nurses and allied health, but this time management, senior leadership and members of the security team, including the head of security were present. The climate in the room completely changed with the presence of leadership. In the previous meeting, where members of the team were clearly comfortable and outspoken about their feelings, almost no one was willing to speak up in this ‘high stakes’ scenario. Members of the leadership team empathized with the team, and discuss ways in which policies and procedures would be improved in light of the incident. The focus was on overall unit and patient safety.

It was Rebecca who took this opportunity to highlight the fear staff were feeling during this incident. With passion and emotion, she relayed the details of our earlier debriefing and articulated how unsafe, vulnerable and fearful nursing and allied health felt during the incident in question, and about the general increase in violent incidents on the unit as a whole. She bravely put her heart on the table, becoming tearful in the process, and spoke for all those who felt too intimidated to do so.  She emphasized how feeling unsafe at work is not acceptable, and that before we can keep patients and families safe and secure, we need to feel that way ourselves.

There was a palpable diffusion of tension in the room when Rebecca started talking. She was relaying exactly what everyone else wanted to express, and she did so from a place of profound love and respect for the C5 staff. It was incredibly impactful. As a result, the conversation started to unfold in a more open and honest way. Because of Rebecca’s bravery, the leadership team left the meeting with a clear sense of how violence in the workplace is a major factor in job satisfaction and that it must be addressed right away. Since that meeting, multiple safety measures have been improved or implemented, including a standard hourly security walk around, locked patient care unit doors, and mock ‘code silver/ active shooter’ scenarios for staff members. Rebecca’s one voice tipped the scales toward meaningful improvements in staff safety. Her speaking up for what was right was a true moment of heroism.


Sincerely, Erin MacGregor, RD  Clinical Dietitian  Trauma, Neurosurgery, Orthopedics

Sunnybrook Health Science Centre