Pat Jeffery’s life and nursing career have been nothing short of awesome, from STARS flight nurse to remote arctic nurse to screenwriter to luge champion to astronomical enthusiast. This registered nurse’s philosophy is that it’s not work if you love it.
Jeffery describes herself as a farm girl from Okotoks. She jokes there were only three careers available to women when she was in high school: teacher, nurse and X-ray technician– and she’s grateful she chose a career in nursing.
She graduated from Holy Cross Hospital school of nursing and started her first job at High River Hospital. Jeffery feels she got experience with a little bit of everything in the small rural hospital, where she moved between departments depending on patient volumes and needs. “I really enjoyed working there. But I worried if I stayed I would never leave, so I moved on,” she laughs.
Jeffery started at Rockyview General Hospital in the ICU in 1981. She claims she retired three years ago, but still works there at least two shifts each month.
She works as part of an ICU outreach code 66 team: an RN and respiratory therapist pair who hurries to any part of the hospital where a patient is deteriorating and at risk of cardiac arrest.
In the past, the hospital had limitations on what RNs could do when a patient was deteriorating. The only options were to call in a physician or follow physician instructions over the phone if they couldn’t attend the patient in person. If the patient failed to improve, the RNs had to wait until the patient was in cardiac arrest before they could call a code blue.
She helped implement a process to prevent patients from coding rather than just treating patients who were already experiencing cardiac arrest. Jeffery says when the team took this proactive approach, cardiac arrests dropped by almost 40 per cent.
“We were so proud to trial and then permanently implement this approach. Now, when we hear code 66 called, it means a patient meets certain criteria, such as low blood pressure, low heart rate and unconsciousness –but hasn’t gone into cardiac arrest yet. We have a chance to stabilize the patient.”
Before she “retired”, Jeffery had one more obstacle to tackle.
In emergencies, vascular access systems are used for quick intraosseous (“IOs”; into bone) access when an IV is difficult to start. Unfortunately, the outreach code 66 and code blue teams were not allowed to insert IOs per the hospital policy. But Jeffery and her colleague gathered testimonials about the procedure and its importance for patient stabilization to share with their executive leadership team. As a result, both teams were approved to insert IOs and a company came to host labs to teach RNs proper insertion on cadavers.
Jeffery became so involved that she began to teach these free labs to healthcare providers across Canada as part of her “retirement.” She also teaches pediatric life support and advanced life support.
When Jeffery started working as a flight nurse in 1989, it was a volunteer role that she did in addition to her work at Rockyview. She still works eight shifts each month.
“If you really want to talk about RNs working to their full scope of practice, STARS is a forerunner. I can do everything,” says Jeffery. “It’s very rewarding to do all the things within my scope, make a difference and save a life.”
Jeffery says a typical day involves flight training, aircraft checks, restocking equipment, giving tours or practising procedures on a mannequin.
The radio tones sound when there is an emergency. The team receives basic information before they get into the helicopter. Once, on the way to a call, as she received more information, she was shocked to learn that the patient in critical condition was her brother.
“That’s never happened before. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I’m glad I was there,” says Jeffery. Thankfully, her brother survived.
Recently, a trip with STARS was to a serious motorcycle crash. The patient had severe facial damage and her airway was full of blood; she needed an IV, but her veins had collapsed. She needed saline to prevent brain swelling and she needed blood. She had bilateral rib fractures.
“We rarely have a physician, but that day we did. The ground medic inserted an IO while I drew up meds and hung blood. The paramedic captured her airway and the physician inserted chest tubes. It was a wonderful example of everyone working together,” says Jeffery.
The patient was critical, but a few weeks later, she’s doing well. “It was a true save,” says Jeffery. “Not all the skills RNs have are technical; we use assessment and critical thinking skills. I consider: what does the patient need right now? What about in 10 minutes? I make a plan and follow it.”
Because working at both Rockyview and STARS wasn’t enough jobs for Jeffery, she worked simultaneously at remote nursing stations in places like Fox Lake in northern Alberta and Aklavik and Deline in the Northwest Territories, providing care for patients within several hundred kilometres.
“The northern lights are south of you!” says Jeffery of Cambridge Bay, a high arctic community in Nunavut, where she worked for four years as a critical care transport nurse. “We went to patients in small airplanes and sometimes even on snowmobiles.”
One of her most memorable experiences was flying out to a six-week-old baby in 40 below. Upon arrival, she learned the baby was six weeks premature and was a twin.
“I was the only person within hundreds of miles who could save his life,” says Jeffery, who gave the baby a breathing tube.
“A few months later, he was thriving, and it was so rewarding. I really made a difference. That will always stay with me.”
“My goal is to leave the world a better place,” says Jeffery. And in following her passion, she’s done just that. Her advice to nurses who feel stressed or burned out is to try a different area of practice, find a challenge and discover something they love.
“Try to find a nursing job that incorporates something you’re interested in. It makes a huge difference,” says Jeffery. “It’s been a wonderful career.”
Her personal interests are almost as cool as her nursing career–literally. When Jeffery learned Calgary was going to host the Winter Olympics in 1988, she wanted to be involved. “I picked a sport I was familiar with–every kid slides on a toboggan; how hard can the luge be?” says Jeffery. “It’s harder than it looks.” Snow luge goes about 30–40 miles per hour. In the Canadian championship, Jeffery took home a gold medal.
Aside from sports, Jeffery took up screenwriting on a dare. To date, she’s written three screenplays and is working on another. One was shortlisted for the Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Awards.
She also wrote a novel about a woman working as a flight nurse who ends up marrying a pilot. “Life imitates art!” says Jeffery, quoting Oscar Wilde. “I ended up marrying a STARS pilot myself!” On top of all that, she rescued a cat, rides a motorcycle and is part of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
By Crystal Komanchuk