In this first of a series, Momentum invites a Mohawk College alumnus to speak with a current student in the same program to share advice, wisdom, and understanding of how things change and how they stay the same. In this kickoff Q&A, and in celebration of 50 years of nursing at Mohawk College, 1970 Nursing graduate Jan Brimer speaks with Practical Nursing student Jess Mills, who finished her program in December. She has been hired at Joseph Brant Hospital to work in complex and palliative care.
What has been your path to nursing?
Jan Brimer: I graduated in 1970 from the Hamilton and District School of Nursing (HADSON). That was just before the colleges got involved and took over the nursing programs in 1973 and four local nursing schools became part of Mohawk. I was strongly influenced by my grandmother who was a nurse here in 1918, during the Spanish Flu epidemic. I was fascinated by her stories. I don’t remember deciding to go into nursing, I feel I was born to be a nurse. I worked for 20 years full time and part time at Joseph Brant Hospital before cutbacks came along and I shifted to home care. I retired about five years ago but I still carry my licence and I still do consultations and private visits for a local pharmacy.
Jess Mills: I am a mom of five and I live in Grimsby. I did a Pre-Health upgrade program in 2021 before going into Nursing. High school me said, ‘Who needs science?’ Turns out I did. I have wanted to be a nurse since I was 18 (my grandmother was also a nurse) but I started my family young and I wasn’t able to go back to school until now. I’m not sure how I did it, especially since I was studying online while trying to homeschool some of my kids during COVID, but I blinked and here I am. I just want to be a help to people.
Jess to Jan: When you first started out, what did a day in the life look like?
When I was really new, I was responsible for six or seven patients a day on the short-stay surgery ward. So many of those surgeries are day surgeries today. One of the big differences today is that drugs are administered through IV pumps. When I was starting out, nurses didn’t do intravenous, so we were giving analgesics intramuscularly (needles). It was time-consuming to deliver that way but I prided myself on the fact that patients didn’t feel it too much. Also, we worked eight-hour shifts, first seven days in a row, with two days off, and then five days in a row with four days off. We didn’t have 12-hours shifts like today.
Nurses are now thought of as part of the team but when I was starting out, there was a huge gap between doctors and nurses. Now nurses get the respect they deserve.
Jan to Jess: What has been your most challenging experience so far?
The confidence on placements to ask questions of the doctors and the seasoned nurses. They are rocking their jobs and it’s intimidating as a brand-new nursing student to talk to them. In school, it was the workload and the volume of material to cover in such a short time. Many times, I was up to 2 or 3 a.m. reading and trying to grasp the concepts.
Jess to Jan: When you were first going into nursing, what areas did you want to go into and were there any you never wanted to do?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do coming out of training but I did know that I didn’t want to do psychiatric nursing. I wasn’t comfortable with that. I loved the surgical ward and the fast turnover there. I just always wanted to do hands-on care.
Jan to Jess: Where do you see your career in five to 10 years?
I know I have found my passion in complex and palliative care. There are so many options in nursing and I do also love mental health work. It’s a difficult but rewarding path there. I do know that I don’t want to be stagnant and stop learning. I see some people who are robots and don’t want to learn new ways of doing things.
Jess to Jan: What has been the hardest thing about nursing?
I never dreamed I would be laid off. It was sudden, devastating and very shocking. I had always been a nurse and I didn’t know what else I would do. I had a couple of odd jobs until a former co-worker got hired for home care and convinced me to apply. Home care staff don’t get enough pay or respect but I took every part-time course at Mohawk College about home care and I found I loved it. So, get experience in hospitals but look at other opportunities, too. There are so many things nurses can do.
Jess to Jan: In a career full of burnout, what’s your advice for a long-lasting career?
If you feel stuck or burned out, go somewhere different or go into something else. Look after yourself. Rely on your colleagues to help you through the tough times. Lean on each other. I still keep in touch with a lot of people I went to school with or who I nursed with early in my career. And make sure you take time to enjoy your family and your time off.
What inspires you about working with patients?
Jess: We see people on their worst day and when they feel their worst. But as a nurse, I am there for them and will do whatever I can to make them feel better. I just think of the patients and their perseverance and I know I can do whatever I have to do, too.
Jan: To see their appreciation at the end. They may not have always liked what you were doing at the time, but they know it was for the best. In palliative, I always just wanted to make it the best it could possibly be for the patient and for the families.
What advice would you give to others considering nursing?
Jess: There is no shame in asking for help when you need it. I was doing my placement at Brantford General Hospital and my child was sick. I had to ask for help. I had to ask for help when I needed a study group. We have to swallow our pride and ask for help. And also, when it’s your passion, you just keep going. I would tell myself it doesn’t matter how much I have to read or write, I’m going to get it done because this is what I want to do.
Jan: Don’t ever stop learning. When I moved to home care, I didn’t like it because I had to work on my own. But I took specialization courses in wound care and I really loved to see patients through their journey from pre-op to post-op and back home again. I did a lot of palliative care, too. And I found that very rewarding. But when I first studied wound care, I felt so intimidated. There was so much I didn’t know. Then I took an ostomy course and that was worse. At that time, I was working and dealing with my kids. But I got through somehow.
What sets a nurse apart in the health care system?
Jess: For me, I have a huge passion for advocating for my patients. Nurses have an ability and drive to advocate because they have the knowledge and spend the time with the patients. If we have to repeatedly go to a doctor or a manager, then we will.
Jan: I was also going to say advocating. In a home care setting, we are always trying to get more services and resources for patients and families at home. It’s always about getting your patients the care they need. If you have to step on some toes or tick someone off, so be it. You have to know how to get what the patient needs. Whether it’s 52 years ago when I graduated or this year when you are, the nurse is at the heart of the system.
50 years of Nursing at Mohawk College
The Mohawk College Nursing program began in 1973 when four schools of nursing – Brantford General School of Nursing, Hamilton Civic Hospitals School of Nursing, St. Joseph School of Nursing and the Hamilton and District School of Nursing (HADSON) – came under the College’s oversight.
That move, initiated across the province by the Ontario government, had the support of the College of Nurses. It reflected the growing belief that nurses would have more professional status and career opportunities with a post-secondary college education.
Those predecessor schools had been training nurses for more than 100 years. Three were directly attached to hospitals, while HADSON was an independent school sponsored by the Hamilton Health Association (formerly the Mountain TB Sanatorium) and was located on the Hamilton Mountain brow.
It was an enormous task to bring those four schools, still operating in their existing locations, into one program, says Rosemary Knechtel, who was teaching at the HADSON school at the time of the transition.
She went on to be Mohawk’s Dean of Health Sciences and Human Services and then Vice President Academic before retiring in 2010 after a 39-year career at the College.
“All of the schools had very good reputations. The programs were rigorous and nurses took a lot of pride in where they had gone to school, so there was a sense of loss and a grieving process at first. But bringing the programs together with Mohawk College meant building on all their strengths to create something new and highly successful.”
In 1978, a newly renovated HADSON facility became home to all of Mohawk College’s Hamilton-based nursing students and was named the Chedoke campus. The Brantford site continued until it was eventually closed.
Faculty and staff from all the predecessor nursing schools established careers at Mohawk College, says Knechtel.
She was a graduate of HADSON and took advantage of a “sandwich” program in which students went to Western University for a year, then to HADSON for two years and then back to Western for a final year. They earned a nursing diploma, along with a bachelor’s of science in nursing.
“It was a very innovative program and there were only a few of them in Ontario at the time,” says Knechtel, who went on to earn a master’s degree at McMaster University.
The merger of the four schools into Mohawk College built on their great programs and paved the way for what came later, including a problem-based curriculum, new programs in Practical Nursing and Personal Support Worker, a Practical Nursing partnership with Six Nations Polytechnic, and a great deal of global outreach to improve nursing programs.
It also laid the foundation for a partnership with McMaster University on a Nursing degree program – the first in Ontario – and a new joint facility in the Institute for Applied Health Sciences that is home to Mohawk’s nursing programs, says Knechtel.
“It has been a very deep and productive relationship between McMaster and Mohawk and it’s been a model for others,” she says.
“The Nursing programs at Mohawk College are well recognized and so respected for graduates who provide top-notch care because they were founded on these strong predecessor schools, the enthusiastic support of Mohawk College and later on the partnership with McMaster University in 2001.”