Northern Nursing

It’s daunting, certainly. But it’s also something that you’ll never forget, and likely never regret.

Leaving the comfort of your lifestyle, your home, your friends, and in my case, a brand new relationship.

When I think of courage, the image that arises is Braveheart battling for his country and his life. Or Ned Stark’s honour and standing up for what’s right. But courage is also simply trying new things, stepping outside your comfort zone. And although this was something that gave me much trepidation, it was something I had wanted to do for so long.  

I left for Dawson City, Yukon, on the 13th of February. For those who don’t know, it’s a town of ~1,500 people and is located over 500 km north of Whitehorse at an intersection of the Yukon and Klondike river. Historically, it was linked to the Klondike Gold Rush and between the years of 1896-1899, thousands traveled north in hopes of staking land and finding gold. Despite the harsh location, it was a lively town filled with brothels, bars, and gold.

When I arrived in February, it was a sleepy little town remaining cold and dark most of the winter months. The river breaks around mid May and a vibrant eclectic community suddenly unfolds for the summer months, attracting everyone from retirement cruise ship goers to young free spirits looking to escape. The summer solstice is met with parties and joy, the longest day of the year when in Dawson City the sun doesn’t set. I didn’t know much about the town when I arrived. I had a friend from Nursing School who was working up there at the newly opened hospital and on a whim, I messaged him about a job. Within a few weeks, I had a contract signed and I was on my way.

I arrived and was met by the hospital manager; a chatty, energetic lady who talked my nervous ear off the entire ride. The first thing I did after she dropped me off was bundle up and take a walk to the grocery store. It was minus 32 degrees Celsius. I was immediately struck by the stillness of the air, the crisp white of the snow, and the bright colours of the buildings.

That evening I met my roommates, some fellow nursing colleagues. They were both travel nurses who had been there for a few weeks already and they gave me the low-down the hospital, the town, and those who lived and worked there. The next morning I started my first day.

The hospital had only opened the year before, therefore there were still plenty of hiccups in policies and how things were done. They were still trying to iron out details such as how to more effectively order supplies or how to update policies. This coupled with the fact that they only had about 4 nurses who lived full time in Dawson City, it was very difficult to train new travel nurses and keep things flowing, as people came and went often in as little as 3 weeks. For the most part, though I was surprised at how quickly I found myself fitting into the flow of the hospital, and in no time I was training others and teaching them the ropes.  You are forced to learn fast.

I need to preface this with the fact that there are much more remote and difficult places to work in Northern Canada. Dawson City has a beautiful new hospital, staffed with around 5 physicians at all times as well as a small nursing staff. Although there are policies that differ from a regular hospital, for example, we don’t carry blood and we have no surgical rooms close by- therefore care is often limited to stabilize and medi-vac to Whitehorse or Vancouver.  There are skills beyond a nurse's scope that is required (The lab/Xray tech works Monday-Friday- if you need blood spun or an x-ray taken off-hours it’s up to you to do it), it is certainly not a nursing station. Orders are not always standing orders, and physicians perform all the advanced skills. Unlike northern nursing stations, you are not required to obtain additional skills aside from the standard ACLS/PALS/NRP.

Over the course of the next few months, I learned a lot about the little town, the people in it, the bars that make up its livelihood, and the surrounding areas that create its beauty.

The casino opens mid-spring and so commences a lively operation of dancers, gambling, and booze. The Westminster hotel, informally known as the pit is a bright pink building in the middle of town, the local watering hole that will forever be the most iconic bar. Its structure is grandfathered in therefore it cannot close for a period of time for it would never be able to open again, and it’s likely seen more inside those walls than most bars. As summer starts, the restaurants begin to open their doors, and people get excited for the sudden abundance of eating options. Dawson City hosts a music festival each year with Canadian artists and people from Whitehorse and all over flock to the town. It’s lively and fun- much like most of the summer. Tombstone Territorial Park is home to some of the most interesting mountain formation I’ve ever seen, and in the fall produces those iconic red and yellow tundra colours. You can take the ferry to West Dawson and drive the road to Alaska, arriving in the town of Chicken, Alaska- blink-and-you-miss-it kind of place. Or hop in a canoe from Whitehorse to Dawson City. For a small remote town, there is plenty to see and do.

Everyone who’s been will agree that the Yukon has a way of pulling at your heartstrings. It can catch people and reel them in. I’ve encouraged a few of my nursing friends to check it out and each of them would agree- one hasn’t left yet! Perhaps it's vastness and wild nature of the land, the feeling that you really are living at the hands of mother nature. Or perhaps it’s the people you meet- all very unique individuals with very different personalities and views on life. Or maybe it’s just the simplicity of it all. They say people go north for one of two reasons; to look for something they’re missing or to run away from something. Either way, you get this feeling you are really living each day, simply.

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