Sydnie Alexander
Sydnie Alexander, a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Geriatric Emergency Medicine (GEM) at UHN, shared the story of Mary Seacole with her nursing team. (Photo: UHN)

Before Sydnie Alexander's first day as a nurse at UHN, her mom, Jacqueline Alexander, brought up the name Mary Seacole. It was a name Sydnie, a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Geriatric Emergency Medicine (GEM) at UHN, had never heard, but the story resonated so strongly that Sydnie shared it with her team.

Mary, a British-Jamaican nurse and businessperson during the 1800s, provided sustenance and care for British soldiers at the battlefront during the Crimean War. A nursing pioneer, she opened a hospital hotel caring for those most in need.

This was around the same time as Florence Nightingale, but Mary is seldom mentioned.

"Mary wasn't only trying to provide nursing care during a war, she was also fighting racism," says Sydnie, who self-identifies as half Black and half White.

"The way society is set up, there are certain stories that are told and certain histories we learn about, and others that are somewhat lost," says Sydnie. "When I looked at the nursing program anecdotally, I realized how many people of colour and how many women of colour there are, and I was thrilled to pass this story along."

This year, for National Nursing Week, UHN is telling these stories as part of a commitment to empower and invest in a diverse TeamUHN. By bringing these stories to the forefront, there is hope for more to follow.

Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale
Posters, which can be found at all UHN sites, tell the stories of Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale. (Image: UHN)

Telling untold stories

National Nursing Week every year coincides with the birth date of Florence Nightingale – considered the founder of modern nursing and arguably the most well-known nurse in history. Florence provided care to British and allied soldiers during the Crimean War and established the first scientifically based nursing school in 1860.

While we continue to celebrate Florence's countless contributions to nursing during the 200th year anniversary of her birth, UHN is also paying tribute to Mary Seacole through an awareness campaign.

Posters, which can be found at all UHN sites, tell the stories of Florence and Mary, who blazed the trails in nursing and set the high standards of care and excellence for the profession that exists today.

"We hope to continue to build on this tradition in years to come and share more stories of diverse nursing leaders throughout history," says Dr. Joy Richards, Vice President, Patient Experience & Chief Health Professions. "Nursing would not be what it is today without these leaders and it's important to open these conversations."

Ingrid Garrick, a nurse at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for more than 30 years as well as an Ontario Nursing Association (ONA) executive and member of the Black Legacy Committee (BLC) at UHN, was involved in the poster review process.

"It means a great deal for BIPOC employees to see the organization's willingness to acknowledge the efforts of those historic and heroic figures who have made significant contributions in their fields, yet have faded from history without acknowledgment," Ingrid says.

Nursing on the frontlines

This year's theme from the Canadian Nursing Association is #WeAnswerTheCall. History has proven that whether on the frontlines of war or a global pandemic, nurses are always there putting others before themselves.

Sydnie came to UHN as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in GEM while continuing to work on her master's degree in Science and Nursing. Three months in, and with one year left in her master's, COVID-19 arrived.

"It was definitely nerve wracking because I was in a new role, a new organization, and now in a new context of COVID-19," Sydnie says. "The support and overwhelming teamwork from my immediate team, our amazing Emergency Department allied health professionals, other registered nurses (RNs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) and our Nursing Manager Kathy Bates, was really incredible."

What has been especially important to Sydnie is the mentorship she received.

"What has been really nice is my mentors are also women of colour," she says. "I love that everywhere I looked at UHN I saw so many women of colour in leadership roles."

Petal Samuel, Clinical Nurse Specialist in Geriatrics at UHN for nearly 41 years, is one of Sydnie's mentors. Mentorship for Petal is asking "how can you lead someone to become the best person they can be?" That is often through an understanding of who blazed the trails.

"There's a significant amount of work that needs to be done to tell the stories of diverse populations and what we have contributed, especially to nursing," Petal says "A lot of it needs to be brought to the forefront.

"It's important for the younger generation of nurses to hear these stories of women from diverse backgrounds in nursing, like Mary, who worked through difficult circumstances to be the best, both personally and professionally.

"I think it's moving the profession forward when diverse individuals see that they have something to offer."

Last year, UHN launched UHN Women, a mentorship program to help empower and further uplift TeamUHN and A Healthier World through open dialogue and communication.

"I am thankful that we are now telling these stories because it's important to have visible diverse leadership in healthcare so that other people in similar backgrounds can see that and maybe decide that they are interested in that profession too," says Sydnie.

"If you can see yourself reflected, then you are more often inclined to think 'I can be that.'"

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