Christina, a registered nurse (RN) who has worked on the palliative care unit at The Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Care Centre (TGHC) for the last fourteen years, is retiring. Our candid conversation about her nursing career, palliative care, and her decision to retire revealed that for Christina, a compassionate and dedicated nurse, retirement does not come easy.

Christina graduated from the nursing program at George Brown College in 1976. At the time in Toronto, Christina tells me, there were more nurses than there were jobs. She got a part-time job at St. Joseph’s Health Centre Toronto (St. Joe’s) on the oncology unit. Soon after she became full-time and transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU).

Before we get ahead of ourselves, I wanted to learn about Christine’s motivation for becoming a nurse. “Were you always interested in becoming a nurse?” I asked her. “I knew what I didn’t want to do.” she responded, smiling, and then said, “I’ll call it divine intervention.”

She told me that when she was younger she knew no one who was a nurse — no school friend or relative who had a connection to the medical field. She had no idea at the end of high school what she wanted to do. She knew she did not want to go to university, for example, to become a teacher. She applied to nursing school, enjoyed it, and never looked back.

After St. Joe’s, Christina continued to work in the ICU, at St. Michael’s Health Centre (SMHC) and then at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre (SHSC). “I worked in the ICU because I wanted to expand my knowledge,” she said. “I learned the basics at St. Joe’s and increased my knowledge and experience at SMHC and SHSC.” She also took a number of courses at Humber College as well as some at Ryerson and, in addition, received in-service training programs offered by the hospitals.

She took time from her busy career to have children, a son who is now twenty-six years old and a daughter who is seventeen. Christina went on maternity leave while she was working at SHSC.

When she returned to nursing her best opportunity was to work with Saint Elizabeth Home Care (SEHC). She did community nursing for SEHC and during her eight-year employment she met and referred a number of people to the palliative care unit at the TGHC. “I had a good working relationship with the palliative care physicians at the TGHC,” said Christina.

“Is that how you came to work on the palliative care unit at TGHC?” I asked. “Not exactly,” said Christina, “I was recommended by a client that I was working with in the community.” She went on to explain that while working in the community she referred a client to the palliative care unit at the TGHC and the client’s husband told the manager at the time to hire this excellent nurse. Because her work in the community was predominately with palliative care patients she continued working in palliative care after she was hired by the TGHC.

Working on the palliative care unit took her back to the hospital setting she had worked in at the beginning of her career. “It’s the same kind of nursing,” said Christina, “it’s all holistic, all one person, all intensive toward that one patient.” For Christina palliative care is like ‘intensive care without all the machines that go beep.’

I asked Christina if she still found her work rewarding after thirty-nine years of nursing? “Yes,” said Christina, “I love delivering the care, including bedside care, emotional, physical, spiritual care, but [I] also [love] how the family members appreciate what we do. It’s wonderful to have that involvement, that personal exchange of information with a patient, because it makes it easier to understand my patient. I found all through my career, especially when I worked in the community in people’s homes, [that if] I could see how they lived [then I could understand more easily] what they liked and the things that were important to them. When a patient comes to TGHC, they lose a lot of their surroundings and I would engage the patient and talk about those things that were important to them. By engaging the patient, you get to understand them and this helps with giving them a quality of life.”

“It seems you still find nursing satisfying…fulfilling.” “I’m not just here,” she stated, “to do a patient’s medical care — bandages and pills. I’m here to be a part of their end-of-life. The satisfaction for me is that, at the end of the day, I’m able to feel I’ve connected with my patient beyond the medical care.”

I asked her why she was retiring. “It’s not because I can’t wait to leave,” she said. “I like my Grace family, but my body has been telling me for the last couple of years that its time.” Then she added, “Shift work has become tiring and it’s hard for me to do two weeks of nights and then two weeks of days — it’s hard to do the switch.”

“You mentioned your Grace family, can you elaborate?” “In a small healthcare facility like the TGHC, the camaraderie is strong,” explained Christina, “and because you’re connected to all the departments, your relationships tend to grow with everyone in the hospital. I’m going to miss my Grace family. I’m going to miss working at the TGHC.”

“Is there anything you would like to add?” “I think it’s important,” said Christina, “to have an environment where we mentor. To share ideas, guide and pass on information. I also want to say that I’ve worked with some amazing nurses here at the TGHC. Things I’ve seen nurses do, like hold a patient’s hand and softly sing to them, is a testament to the care and compassion we provide. I love palliative care — I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone who knows me. I’m very grateful that I have had the opportunity to help patients in their end-of-life journey.”

Christina is planning to spend quality time with her children and extended family when she retires. She will also be doing some rehab for a wrist she fractured last winter. She wants to concentrate on getting better.

There is also an after-retirement plan for Christina. She told me the senior staff — Marilyn Rook, the CEO and President, and Marilyn Wharton, the Executive Director for Patient Care & Chief Nursing Executive — are very supportive of the nurses here at the TGHC, and for that reason Christina is coming back to work as a volunteer. “It’s because of the ‘Marilyn(s),’ she exclaimed. “I’ve already talked to Michael, head of volunteers, about returning to do volunteer work,” said Christina.

“I guess retirement does not come easy,” I said to Christina. She responded by saying, “I love delivering care!”