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Maria Nelson might have been an artist like her parents; it was what she knew. She writes poetry and music and plays the bass guitar.
But something life-changing happened when Maria was 15 years old that put her on a different career path: her father suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm and was rushed to Toronto Western Hospital.
The care he received from the neuroscience nurses and physicians – including the late Dr. Fred Gentili – is what actually drew her to nursing.
"I wanted to do something meaningful and give to others what the nurses and the UHN team gave to me," says Maria, who now works at the same hospital where her father's life was saved. She's the Director of Professional Practice within the Collaborative Academic Practice (CAP) and Acute Care Program (ACP) portfolio.
Maria's path to this role began with a hospital co-op placement in cardiac and vascular at St. Michael's Hospital in her final year of high school. She went on to complete her bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing and further specialized in gerontology, mental health crisis and behavioural analysis.
Maria spent the first decade of her career as a registered nurse, interprofessional educator, advanced practice nurse, clinical operations manager and practice chief. Working in areas such as mental health, emergency crisis, neurology, complex care and palliative care, she discovered a passion and talent for managing teams, redesigning programs and driving operational improvements.
"It is inspiring to see staff and teams succeed, and rewarding to be able to shape the care we provide by consistently working to improve and evaluate the system we provide that care in," Maria says.
Building better care
Maria and her team collaborate with operations to improve system efficiency and effectiveness by helping health professionals expand their skill sets; transitioning students from a learning to a working environment; and implementing best practices and new strategies as the needs of teams, patients and communities evolve.
"At times we may not have all the answers, or a serious event arises that makes us reflect on our approach," she says. "Even negative experiences can help us learn, grow and improve the quality of care and service.
"We have an opportunity to build people up and ensure they feel supported and confident in their contributions to excellent care delivery."
On Monday, to coincide with National Nursing Week, May 8 to 14, UHN released its new Nursing Strategy, which is titled
Read more about it.
"Maria is the type of nurse and nurse leader we value so highly at UHN – dedicated, compassionate and professional," says Pam Hubley, UHN's VP of Health Disciplines & Chief Nursing Executive. "Her passion not just for patient care, but also for the profession is what makes us confident in the future of nursing at UHN."
Maria believes firmly that to meet the needs of a changing society, the health care system must reflect the communities we serve. Promoting diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) across health care, including leadership, is a major step towards truly understanding and addressing the needs of diverse populations.
"Teams want to see themselves in the leadership and have them represent who they are though all levels of staff," she says. "Valuing and respecting diversity of race, culture, gender, spiritual beliefs, abilities and professional experience builds trust in the system among both employees and patients.
"It also creates a more responsive team that uses innovative methods to reduce gaps in service and builds confidence in staff and patients to feel comfortable as their authentic selves."
Maria also hopes her role can have a positive influence on reducing disparity in how people access health care so that patients underserved historically can receive services that meet their unique needs.
"There is still a great deal of DEI work to be done in healthcare that is not unique to UHN," she says. "In the steps we take to address it honestly, I am optimistic we'll get there."
Navigating rough waters
The demands of the pandemic spurred a faster transition to practice for many new health care grads and left all staff with fewer moments for self-care or professional development. Through her work leading practice initiatives and CAP Fellowships at UHN, Maria aims to help staff recover from the effects of the pandemic and build careers that make them excited to head to work.
Robust professional practice initiatives that address the learning and mentorship needs of new grads and mid-to-late career nurses and clinicians alike are essential both for staff retention and the success of efforts to redesign the future of healthcare and nursing.
"It is important to iterate and innovate avenues of engagement and have colleagues and friends who will lift you up when things seem unfeasible," Maria says.
"We are building on what we've learned in the last three years to make us stronger, which is no easy feat. However, there is always a way to navigate rough waters, as I learned from the team here when I was 15, and the calm and beautiful waters we imagine are within reach.
"For now it is the getting there that is the real art."