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Betty Watt
Longtime operating room Nurse Manager Betty Watt is remembered for being a strong but fair leader who had a great sense of humour and made sure surgeons were kept in line. (Photo: Courtesy Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation)

Loved, respected, admired and – truth be told, sometimes feared – Betty Watt was an institution at UHN.

Nurse Manager for more than two decades in the Toronto General Hospital's operating rooms (ORs), Betty was the person who made sure all the pieces in this complex jigsaw puzzle were in place and fitted together seamlessly. She ensured that the main mission was accomplished – patients received the best available care.

"I was always very impressed with her ability to command the ORs," says former UHN CEO, Dr. Alan Hudson.

"If you worked with Betty, you knew she was the boss, the 'czar.'  And she was never afraid of the surgeons, kept them in line."

National Nursing Week, which is being celebrated May 11 to 17, is an important occasion to remember Betty's legacy in making sure that nurses were valued, respected and partners in the tough and male-dominated surgical environment at that time.

After receiving the sad news of her passing on April 16, colleagues from TeamUHN who worked with Betty were quick in remembering her wit in dealing with surgeons.

"Surgeons were at times harsh or inappropriate with scrub nurses, and Betty wouldn't have it," says Dr. Bryce Taylor, who was Surgeon-in-Chief at Betty's time and became good friends with her.

"She wasn't afraid to walk up to a surgeon and have a little chat to set things straight.

"Larger than life, Betty was basically one of those people who became an institution at TGH," says Dr. Taylor.

nurse Francis Macapagal

A researcher with an interest in gender issues in healthcare, Dr. Donna Stewart met Betty in the 1990s.

"She was known for being a fierce strong leader, and she was, but I also remember a fair Betty, who had a quick read on people and an incredible sense of humour," says Dr. Stewart.

"She really got things done and was able to promote a culture change towards respectful communication in the ORs."

Setting the tone and keeping high standards

Even before she started working at TGH, Betty made her style clear.

Dr. Wayne Johnston, Medical Director of the Vascular Lab at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, was part of the search committee when Betty was being hired in the 1980s.

He recalls Betty being asked in the interview process about how she would manage surgeons if they were rude or inappropriate at any given stressful situation.

"Betty looked straight at the division head asking the question and said: 'look, I have three teenage children at home. So, what is your question?'"

Dr. Johnston says they all had a laugh and instantly knew Betty was the right fit for the job.

Betty's leadership was important not only with regards to respect and civility, but also to make sure the process and protocols were followed strictly.

"She was extremely attuned to policies, guidelines, rules and regulations," says Dr. Taylor. "She ran a tight ship."

He recalls Betty's contributions were crucial to the redesign of Toronto General's current state-of-the-art surgical suites, in the Peter Munk building.

"She helped set the standards and processes and also gave input on every detail, even on the height of scrub sinks, on the texture of the floors, and on the placement of every piece of furniture or technology," Dr. Taylor says.

"Her legacy was real excellence in patient-centred care and adherence to the highest of standards."

More than a manager, a leader

The shift in culture which Betty promoted was only possible because of her leadership mindset. As Dr. Hudson points out, her title was Nurse Manager, but she was so much more.

"She was an outstanding leader," he says. "She sat at the table with other senior – and many times male – people and she could always hold her own, and make real life-changing contributions."

Betty Watt set the bar high for herself and her colleagues. She woke at 4 a.m. every workday, was always the first one in and last one out. She would push her team, but was also very caring.

"She knew every person in her team, their families, their likes and dislikes," says Dr. Taylor.

"She was a real leader."

After retiring in 2003, Betty worked as a UHN volunteer, supporting the fundraising efforts for the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation. She also developed a career as a private consultant in OR practices, advising hospitals across Canada.

In September 2003, the Foundation opened the Betty Watt Endowment Fund, supported by more than 25 donors. It awards annually the Betty Watt Prize for Courageous Leadership in Nursing in recognition of young nurses who make a significant contribution to the field.

Dr. Stewart says she was privileged to talk to Betty before she passed and was happy to see she was in good spirits.

"She said she had the warmest memories from her time working at the hospital and with the Foundation," Dr. Stewart says.

"She said she had a wonderful life."

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