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Alumni Engagement

Empathy in action: Nursing grad creates safe space for patients at Nine Circles

March 22, 2016

Heather Day crop

No one wants to discuss their sexual health with a stranger. But those who enter Heather Day’s care can rest assured they’re in a judgment-free zone.

As a nurse at Nine Circles Community Health Centre testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, the Red River College grad creates a warm, welcoming environment for her patients – no matter which road led them to her.

“You’re asking people about their sexual health and their drug use and it can be pretty difficult to talk about that stuff in a cold, clinical environment,” says Day. “You need to help relax and put people at ease and tell them why it’s important that you’re asking these questions.”

Day graduated with a Bachelor of Nursing from the College’s three-year accelerated program in 2013. Six months after completing her senior practicum at Nine Circles, she landed a permanent position there conducting tests for STIs and HIV, providing support for those affected by HIV/AIDS, and promoting harm reduction for those who are at risk.

Her patient base comprises a number of at-risk populations, including those involved in the sex trade and people who use intravenous drugs.

“I’ve seen a lot of vulnerable people there,” says Day, who takes an empathic approach to care, focusing on trying to make her patients’ circumstances and actions safer, rather than condoning or condemning them. “Sometimes people will engage in behaviours that you would never engage in for whatever reason, so it’s really important to not focus on yourself and to focus on your clients.”

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to sex. So there can’t be a one size fits all approach to treatment and management of infections.”

If you had asked Day when she was growing up if she envisioned herself spending her days talking about sex and conducting exams, the answer would have been a definite no. “It wasn’t on my bucket list,” she laughs. But a rather natural series of events led her to Nine Circles.

When Day was in her teens and 20s, her mom became very ill with diabetes and required visits from dialysis nurses three times a week for five years. Watching the nurses take care of her mom inspired Day – who’d spent her post-high school years waitressing and managing a non-profit retail store – to pursue the same path, and by the age of 30, her name found its way to the top of the College’s Nursing wait list.

Day describes her three years at RRC as “the busiest time in my life,” and feels fortunate to have had student loans in place so she could devote all of her time to school. Her focus paid off, as she was the inaugural winner of the Nursing program’s Gold Medal for Excellence. One of the courses she did particularly well in was her community nursing placement — the clinical component of the program that most reflects her current job.

Drawing additional inspiration from a documentary she saw about nurses caring for residents of Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside, Day realized her strong desire to help vulnerable populations.

Nine Circles was a natural fit for her work placement; she says she lucked out in landing a 9-to-5 job at the clinic, but notes nurses in general don’t usually have to look far for work.

“Nursing is a pretty safe bet if anyone wants a stable and meaningful job. You really get to make a difference.”

Since graduating, Day has returned to RRC to speak with third-year Nursing students about her experiences with the program and its “wonderful” instructors – as well as her work, which she can confidently say she enjoys every aspect of.

“In my area of work, which is mostly curable infections, I actually get to give people cures,” she says.

“Every now and then, I do find a client who tests positive for HIV and I know that I’m going to see them the next day to give them a positive diagnosis. I will take that home with me, and wonder if they’re going to be OK.

“But in general, I get to take positive energy home. I’m very grateful for that.”

— Profile by Lindsey Ward (Creative Communications, 2004)