OUTLOOK - You would be hard pressed to find someone in the community who hasn’t been impacted by Public Health Nurse Carolyn Koop. From caring for new babies and families, to car seat safety clinics, to education programs, to delivering COVID vaccines, to yearly flu shots, her work has taken her into every corner of the community. As she prepares for retirement following a career spanning more than four decades what stands out is…gratitude.
After spending one year in the College of Education preparing to be a teacher, Carolyn switched to nursing. “I really wanted to care for people of all ages and just wanted to be there to help them with their needs,” she explained. “As time went on I knew I wanted to be in the community promoting health and education.”
Having grown up in Winnipeg, she earned her Nursing Diploma at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre and worked in the ER of a small city hospital. She and Bill Koop were married in 1979 and moved to Outlook for Bill’s new teaching job. Carolyn commuted to Saskatoon for the Post-RN Baccalaureate Nursing Program, attaining her degree at the University of Saskatchewan.
Her first job in Outlook was helping establish the home care program. Then in February of 1981 a job in public health opened up and Carolyn felt it might be a good fit. “It would mean working with people from a wide variety of age groups and working in health education,” she said. A public health nurse has a broad scope of responsibility. Carolyn explained, “You are looking after the health of the community, the individual and the family. It’s about identifying what the community needs and then working with the population, but also the individual.”
Team approach a positive change
In a career that spanned more 40 years Carolyn has seen a lot of change, one of the most positive of which is the team approach that developed. “At the start it was just me,” she remarked. “If I saw a need in the community I would invite a resource person to come in to present on that topic.” She brought in guest speakers and organized programs in the community such as “Eating Smart for Your Heart” or “Kids in the Kitchen”. She said they were always encouraged to do more in the community, but were often limited by time.
But with the construction of the new Outlook Health Centre 15 years ago, there was opportunity to develop a team atmosphere when therapists, mental health workers, dieticians and more were brought under one roof. “Just being part of the team, I loved that,” she remarked. “We didn’t have that for the first 25 years. I was community health. Now it’s a team, a community health team and that happened because of a new facility and new directions from being in Heartland Health Region at the time.” It allowed for the efficient access of resources. She explained, “When I identified a need I could make a referral. I could advocate for them and knew that someone within the team would be part of their care, not just me but a group of people. It has been 15 years of good, collaborative team work.”
One of the other changes noted is a different approach to health thanks to a growing awareness that the way people lived impacted their health status. “We started to realize it wasn’t just disease,” she said. “We looked at how to prevent illness and how to promote health. We had a way to keep people healthy, not just treat them, and that was exciting.”
This involved considering the whole person and determinants of health including education, social networks, support systems, housing, employment and family. “Health is more than just our physical wellness,” Carolyn said. “I could refer people to services they might need like the food bank, low income housing or English classes. It all links together and determines our health.”
Babies have been a focus
A major focus during her career has been babies, moms, maternal health and immunizations. That area has seen change over the last five to ten years, particularly as some new parents express vaccine hesitancy. “There are those that are reluctant to receive recommended vaccinations,” Carolyn remarked. “Either they under-immunize their children or refuse all vaccines. But people forget what these diseases look like.”
She is concerned that with so much information available to parents it can be hard to sort through the veracity of it all. “Vaccinations are effective and safe. There’s no research to indicate any adverse effects. I think there’s more anxiety with social media and parents wanting to know what’s right.”
It’s a conversation she has learned to tread carefully. “My role is to be sensitive and just listen and communicate what parents want to know. We just want to make sure people have the correct information.”
While Carolyn has seen shifts in some aspects of nursing over the last four decades, there is something that hasn’t changed. “People are the same,” she said. “They still want the best for their families and they want services to be accessible.”
She says being able to connect with so many families over the years has brought tremendous joy. “I have worked with three generations. Babies of babies,” she said with a smile. “It’s great seeing how we have a new generation of parents. It’s wonderful to see how people have stayed in Outlook or see people coming back who want to raise their kids in a rural area.”
She has also enjoyed getting to know families from other countries as newcomers from places across the globe now call this area home. “It has given a new dimension to the work,” she said. “Hearing their stories and unique experiences and offering guidance in how to navigate the health care system or refer them to local programs has been a real privilege.”
Carolyn loved being a nurse because she was always learning something new. No two days were alike and there was always updated information to keep current with, particularly as public health dealt with H1N1, SARS, West Nile, Hantavirus, Zika virus and COVID-19 over the last number of years. “There was always something to keep you learning and it keeps the job so interesting. Every day you’re using critical thinking skills and it gives you a chance to be a student all of your life. I hope that I brought encouragement, knowledge and especially peace of mind to individuals and especially during what was a confusing past three years of understanding the COVID virus.”
All those immunizations!
Keeping current with updates became easier when continuing education moved online. Prior to that a pile of journals met nurses at the end of the day. It was also a helpful change getting the immunization data base computerized in 2005 enabling nurses to collect all data at point of service. “That was a nice transition,” she said. “We could keep track of the coverage as we gave you your needle.”
Indeed, giving needles was a major component of her work, and one that gave Carolyn contact with so many in the community. In 1991 flu shot clinics for seniors began. As time went on pressure from the public made the shots more widely available and soon flu clinics kept nurses busy for a couple of months each year. After delivering thousands of injections over her career Carolyn could say, “I felt like I had a technique that worked and it gave me a chance to meet people of all ages.”
As a mother of four and grandmother of six Carolyn looks forward to more time with them, but beyond that she is hoping to continue helping families, especially new arrivals to town. “I really want to build more relationships with some of the immigrants coming into our community. I’m not sure what that looks like yet but I am trusting God to open doors. I want to be available for helping where there’s a need.”
Approaching her last day on the job Carolyn said she had no regrets, just plenty of positive memories. “I have so much gratitude that people have trusted me to be their public health nurse. Every day I got to meet new people and their families and see kids thrive. I loved working with families.”
She estimates she cared for 50-60 babies per year which means probably close to 2500 babies over the course of her career. Having invested that career in one community has proven to be an advantage. “You get to have a real vision of what the community has been like and how it’s changing,” she remarked. “I’ve learned so much from families. I don’t think I can properly put into words how much being a public health nurse has meant to me and the overwhelming sense of gratitude I have. It has been so wonderful to celebrate the successes and seeing progress made in a child or family’s life. That is what I work for.”