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The Women of the North

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BY JENNIE HELMER

In this article, we are celebrating four female paramedic stories, the Women of the North: the first female Director to lead the Northern Region, a Rural Advanced Care Community (RACCP) blazing trails while also playing the trumpet, a Critical Care Paramedic (CCP) who moonlights as a rad mountain biker and a Community Paramedic (CP) with a passion for giving back.

All of them eagerly embrace their work in Northern BC, where resources are scarce, the independence extreme and where the ability to innovate is constantly set to maximum. Together, these women are leaders in ensuring no voice, however remote, is forgotten, and no person, however isolated, lacks care.

Northern BC is home to 250,000 people, or about four per cent of B.C.s total population, and covers 569,000km2 (or 50 per cent of the entire province. It sprawls from islands and coastal communities, through mountain towns, and the ranchlands of the Northern Interior, to the foothills of the Rockies.

Deb Trumbley

Deb Trumbley
Deb Trumbley

Deb Trumbley, ACP, is BCEHS’s Director of Patient Care Delivery for the Northern Districts. Deb is the first female Director to work in the North, and brings a powerful voice to the top tier of the organization.

Being the tenacious and steadfast leader she is, Deb has consistently found herself in a group of “firsts” for most of her 30-year career both as a paramedic and director. When Deb first started her role in the North, one of the first challenges was getting to know the area and the people.  Paramedics are by nature independent workers, and she found the limited resources and remote nature of the North meant the independent streak in paramedics was “strong and well developed”. There were several “that’s not how we do things around here” barriers at the start, coupled with a very tight community that presented unusual challenges and unprecedented opportunities.

“It has taken time for people to learn who I am, and for me to show them I am committed to the area. And just maybe, I have not only street credibility, but the ability to represent the area at a larger table and move it forward.”

Accustomed to easier access to resources, Deb has had to flip the switch on her assumptions. With fewer resources she is constantly looking at ways to innovate, while at the same time advocating for investment in Northern communities.

“Our paramedics have incredible knowledge and understanding of the area and its needs and it is my job to hear them and understand those needs, while at the same time ensuring we maintain our connection to the larger system and advocate for our unique needs.”

Sarah Shaw

Shaw - Helicopter
Shaw – Helicopter

In addition to being an accomplished trumpet player, Sarah Shaw, ACP, is not only the first female RACCP in the province, she is also the first RACCP to work in the North. Sarah began her northern adventure in 2011 as a unit chief in a North-Eastern B.C. town.  Shortly thereafter, she traded in her administrative leadership hat for a clinical leadership position and so the journey continued. 

“It was challenging work back then as I was the only female leader in a very male-dominated area, and things had been that way for a long time.”

Sarah is the only ACP ground resource covering a vast expanse of land, and there have been occasions where the weight of being so alone has seemed excessively heavy.  As a lone responder, she often feels isolated in her decision making as she does not have the benefit of a trained ACP partner.  For support, , she accesses the CliniCall desk and the Paramedic Specialist team for live peer-support conversations.  As well, she says she feels the support of an organization that has her back, from senior leadership to local crews.

Shaw - Trumpet
Shaw – Trumpet

Since she was the first ACP to ever work in the Prince Rupert area, there was a lack of understanding about her scope and abilities.  To bolster understanding of the role of an ACP, she has been diligently building her team, collaborating with partner agencies and working with her cherished group of mentors and northern physicians. With such a heavy role, Sarah cares for her own health and mind, by having regular rendezvous with a clinical psychologist. 

Sarah’s Northern region is complicated by the fact that many of the communities contacting 9-1-1 for help require flight or boat access–and there are no diagnostic capabilities within a 90-minute rotor response time. Sarah says, sometimes, “we come across situations that are truly new and there is no policy written on the subject, in which case we can collaborate and do the best thing for the circumstances”.  For Sarah, these are the situations where Northerners really shine. 

“Overall, I have great satisfaction with the work I’m doing up here, and I hope I can convince other paramedics to make the jump!

Kate McRae

McRae
McRae

Kate is the first female CCP to work in the North.  Kate’s kindness, calm demeanor and grace under pressure has made her a legend. When her block of work ends, she trades in her flight helmet for a bike helmet and proceeds to lay down awe-inspiring trails with the same fierce resolve she is famous for as a CCP.

Kate grew up in a small Northern community and began her paramedic career in the North.  As a novice paramedic, Kate remembers driving flight crews to the hospital, asking questions that would shape her career path. “Where did they start? What was their progression through training? Would they do it any differently?”. Ultimately, she became a CCP. She returned to the North with a personal connection and sense of obligation to bring the best services to the area.

As a vivacious advocate for her patients, she is well aware of the challenges due to limited resources and the significant distances between communities. Response times are long and remote clinics and treatment centers sometimes have to manage complex patients for longer periods of time, while they await Kate and her team’s arrival. For Kate, these incredibly challenging situations result in some inspiring efforts of resourcefulness, creativity and teamwork.

“When you arrive at an MVA in the North and there are five patients and just yourself and your partner, you learn to adapt, be resourceful and get the call done. There is no other option.”

A believer that the most significant practice impact from working in the North (or in any under-resourced remote region) is the development of a resourceful and creative paramedic practice, Kate is now supporting and inspiring the future paths of female paramedics. 

Jessica Wurst

Wurst
Wurst

Jessica Wurst, CP, PCP-IV.  Jessica is a well-respected Community Paramedic working indefatigably under the Northern Lights.  All those who come across Jessica, say her care for others is both inspiring and humbling. 

For Jessica, the ability to collaborate, erases the sense of isolation in the North, and has the greatest impact on her success.  A forger of relationships, Jessica is always finding innovative ways to keep her clients supported and connected. When COVID restrictions first began, she came upon the idea to make care packages for her community paramedic clients. Even though she wasn’t able to make home visits, she wanted the clients to know she was thinking of them. They were well received and word got around. Before long, she was receiving calls from other CPs asking what she had included in the packages and how they could customize packages for their own clients. It strengthened into a collaborative project, well beyond her home community.

“The result of collaboration is the feeling of a whole team pulling together toward the same goals. It feels good.”

As is common in the North, geography presents an immense and obvious obstacle to delivering care.  For example, when Jessica meets with CPs in Tumbler Ridge from her home base in Fraser Lake, it’s at least half a shift of travel.  Her next road trip will include five different communities along the Northern highway system, covering 1,365 kilometers round-trip. Jessica says “being a female doesn’t change the geography, or my willingness to put in the kilometers. The challenges would really be for those who are uncomfortable dedicating time to travel, alone in a vehicle for hours.”

Jessica embraces the long distances as an opportunity to understand patients better and get glimpses into their lives.  For her, this connection to the patient, is a significant component of care greatly informing the practice of being a paramedic.

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Jennie Helmer

Jennie Helmer

Jennie Helmer is the BCEHS Research Lead and a Paramedic Practice Leader. Prior to this, Jennie worked as an Advanced Care Paramedic, a Unit Chief and a Paramedic Specialist with BCEHS. She has been involved in numerous initiatives including the implementation of the BCEHS Cardiac Arrest Registry, the Assess, See, Treat and Refer clinical pathways, and the Collaborative Heart Attack Management Program (CHAMP). She is currently pursuing her PhD at UBC in the School of Population and Public Health.

Women in Paramedicine

Women in Paramedicine

Women in Paramedicine is compromised of dozens of women in the paramedical field across Canada. Since 2019, they have been sharing their research, point of view, thoughts, and strength to Canadian Paramedicine through their voice and words.

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