“At the beginning of all this, I made it my mandate that I never wanted a patient to experience what I have in health care,” shared Heather Thiessen, patient and family advisor and recipient of the 2020 award of excellence from the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association (SRNA). “My only payment I ask for is to know that we are creating better health care systems that are really focusing on the needs of patients and families.”

Heather is a member of the Patient Partnership Office at Health Standards Organization (HSO) and a patient surveyor at Accreditation Canada (AC). She is now also an honorary member of the SRNA. Heather’s acceptance speech summarized her experience through the health system and how she became the patient advisor leader she is today:

“I have been so fortunate that I can use my voice as a patient in the health system to help with improvements to health systems, seeing health systems work more in a patient- and family-centered way,” Heather shared. “I have been able to work with students in all health sciences classes, including nursing, medicine, pharmacy, physiotherapy, nutrition and also with paramedics. Bringing my journey as a patient and sharing it to help see what is possible for safer care with patients and families when they are more involved in their care.”

“Not what you want to hear when you’re embarking on your life journey”
“Even as a child, I had hoped to be a nurse. My Barbies were my patients and I created hospitals in my basement,” Heather laughs. “As many of you know I had hoped to be a nurse but due to illness and life I was not able to achieve this goal,” Heather shared. “I was accepted into a program just as I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Not what you want to hear when you’re embarking on your life journey.”

Heather navigated what to do next:
“I kept getting sick and having to go to hospital. I had to make a difficult decision to withdraw from the program. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life and once my illness stabilized, I was able to work as an adjudicator. I loved that job because I was able to work with patients as they were returning to work. I was able to be a part of the patient journey in some way.”

After a rollercoaster of further health complications and spending her time being rushed to hospital and being on a ventilator “anywhere between from two weeks to four months,” Heather remains “forever grateful to the health providers who were willing to make celebrations for my children that were spent with me in hospital a little more special by blowing up rubber gloves or even letting them enter into the ICU when children were not normally allowed.”

Heather believes it was after another difficult experience she started wondering how many others might be having similar experiences and what sort of a positive change she could make. “I remember being sick but asking to spend an Easter holiday weekend with my family, because it was so important to me to be with them,” she said. “I was told bluntly ‘If you go home, you’ll die,’ and ‘If you don’t like the way I’m talking to you, you can leave.’”

“I believe it started with me knocking on their door”
“I really didn’t want anyone else having a similar patient experience as I had,” she shared. She decided to approach Dr. Lowis Berry (retired Dean) and Associate Dean of Nursing Dr. Hope Belinski at the University of Saskatchewan. “I believe it started with me knocking on their door and offering to share my story for the future nurses.”

What started as a conversation and an offer, evolved into a scene where “I regularly participate in three-hour classes.” “I have always ended those chats with how envious I am that they are able to be a nurse,” Heather says, “and I am so grateful I can use my voice to promote people-centred care. One of the biggest topics we cover is about building and creating these authentic partnerships with their patients,” she says.

In 2009 the Patient First Review, a landmark document in Saskatchewan and Canadian history, was released. “That document saved my life,” Heather affirms. “Tony Dagnone spoke to over 4,000 patients, families and care providers and asked what was working well in healthcare and what was working not-so-well in healthcare. The overarching recommendation was that we need to shift from a system-centred approach to one of more patient- and family-centred,” she said. “The report focused on really looking to the needs and wants of patients and families.” Shortly after, one of the VPs who happened to be a nurse approached her. “She said ‘Heather, you have been experiencing care for a long time now and would you go on this journey with us.’ And I did.”

People-centred care
“And so, for the past 11 years, I’ve not only been partnering with health systems and students in health sciences,” Heather said. “My heart belongs to nursing, because I wanted to be one. I am thankful for the many opportunities I’ve had to partner with health systems, but also with our students, because they are our future. Nurses have that one interaction with patients that are so critical to that patient experience. I will always dedicate that time to nursing students,” Heather said. “I am changing healthcare because I’m able to do it in a different way as the voice of the patient who has that lived expertise to help health leaders and everyone in the health system understand the importance of that patient voice.”

“So many people to thank, but here are the ones I can’t not thank”
Heather thanked the SNRA a large group of friends, family, her community, health leaders and fellow patients and family members (her father, husband, two daughters), including the two people responsible for nominated her for this award: Dr. Lowis Berry and Dr. Hope Belinski. True to form, Heather personally thanked “my amazing ICU nurses at Royal University Hospital (RHU), my neuro nurses at RUH and the oncology nurses at RUH, who have helped me to trust in a health care system.”

She thanked “the patient and family advisors who partner every single day with our health systems here in Saskatchewan and across Canada and around the world. “In Saskatchewan, we have over 600 patient and family advisors and they bring their story to help shape our health system but also work with students in new and creative ways.” Heather finished her talk by affirming “we will build a better health system and we will do it in partnership.”

Please watch the 2020 SRNA Awards of Excellence and join us in offering sincere congratulations to Heather and all of the 2020 recipients. See the video.