Nursing grad brings vital skills to workplace

Picture a nurse in your mind's eye and you're likely to see someone in a clinical role, say at a hospital bedside or taking blood pressure in a clinic. But Jodi-Ann Robinson-Perry performs her nursing duties in a manufacturing plant, looking out for the health and well-being of more than 1,000 workers across Western Canada.

Graduating next week with her master's in nursing, Robinson-Perry is uniquely qualified for her job as an occupational health nurse — not just because of her education but also thanks to her life experience.

Robinson-Perry first trained and first practised as a registered nurse in Jamaica, and gained more than a decade of hospital experience in the emergency department, operating room, pediatrics, palliative care and more.

It was a childhood family crisis, and a desire for more work-life balance, that motivated her to switch to occupational health nursing after she moved to Canada in 2016.

She remembers the day vividly, although it happened back when she was just a fifth grader. Her parents had sent her from their rural farm home to live with her eldest sister Jacqulyn in the big city so she could get a better education. Her sister's husband would drive her to and from school, but at the end of one day he just didn't show up.

A cousin came to take her home instead, and soon after men from the airport where her brother-in-law worked arrived at the house. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but from their hushed tones, she could tell something serious had happened.

She soon learned that her brother-in-law had been fatally electrocuted at work that day.

"That changed the whole course of our lives," she says, "And I think it really played a role in me wanting to become a nurse and specifically specializing in occupational health nursing, to ensure that everyone makes it home safely to their loved ones at the end of each workday."

Education is key

During holidays when Robinson-Perry returned to her parents' farm in the country, she was always the first to volunteer to care for the cows, pigs, chickens and other animals, even bottle feeding a three-legged goat kid. Her parents were keen on ensuring all six children were properly educated, so Robinson-Perry lived with her sister, now a college principal lecturer in accounting and finance, through all of her school years. It was no surprise when Robinson-Perry chose nursing as her profession — she had always loved helping others and several of her paternal aunts also work in the profession.

Robinson-Perry helps oversee health and safety at All Weather Windows, Western Canada's largest manufacturer of windows and doors. This includes responsibility for an on-site clinic at the head office in Edmonton, a team of casual nurses, paramedics and other health-care providers, preventative care and employee education, mental health supports, disability management and emergent, urgent and non-urgent care of ill or injured workers.

Along with her RN designation, Robinson-Perry holds a certificate in occupational nursing and also sought out extra training such as psychological health adviser certification through the Canadian Mental Health Association, and certifications in venipuncture, vision screening, audiometry, spirometry and advanced international trauma life support.

"I'm a firm believer in professionalism, reskilling and upskilling," Robinson-Perry says.

When it came time to choose a topic for her final U of A master's project, Robinson-Perry tapped into her love of education to investigate how well the current patchwork of programs and courses available across North America prepares nurses for occupational health nursing roles. She hopes to publish her findings and present them at a national conference.

She'd like to see more nursing students exposed to occupational health nursing as a career option because she believes having aptly prepared occupational health nurses on staff not only helps a business manage its workforce more effectively, but takes away strain from an overburdened health-care system.

"Many employers have been opting to employ less qualified staff that can be paid a lower wage — for example, persons with solely advanced first-aid training and less understanding of the health-illness continuum, knowledge and experience than an occupational health nurse," she says. "Having an occupational health nurse as a disability manager really helps the business case."

Robinson-Perry's research supervisor, Joanne Olson, a professor of community health nursing, agrees.

"Nurses are so well equipped for this kind of work — not only with their acute care background, but their very broad health promotion perspectives," Olson says. "A first-aid person can manage accidents on the site, but you also need someone who can promote health for the workers and look at mental health. Nurses can do a more in-depth assessment of how mental health issues affect someone's work and family, and take a much broader perspective."

Bringing empathy to the workplace

Robinson-Perry learned a lot about the juggling act many employees perform to find work-life balance, as she continued working through the pandemic while pursuing her graduate studies and she also gave birth to a baby girl, Payton, now 19 months old. She credits support from her husband Dushane, an IT systems analyst and operations team lead for Go Auto, for helping her to get through it all.

"It was just full — full-on work, then full-on school and family commitments. It was really hectic," she recalls. "Dushane has been exceptionally supportive and has gone above and beyond. He's an involved and active father. I am exceptionally grateful for the care he provided me after my emergency C-section, when I couldn't adequately care for myself and Payton."

Nursing master's grad Jodi-Ann Robinson-Perry (right) and her husband Dushane swing their 19-month-old daughter Payton as they take a stroll in the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy. (Photo: John Ulan)
Jodi-Ann Robinson-Perry (right) and her husband Dushane swing their 19-month-old daughter, Payton, as they stroll through the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy. Jodi-Ann credits Dushane for being "exceptionally supportive" as she juggled the commitments of work, school and family. (Photo: John Ulan)

Robinson-Perry says her professors at the U of A were also flexible, allowing her to hand in assignments early or providing advice on how to seek extensions, depending on her needs. She would book meetings with her research supervisor for early in the mornings, when her husband was still home to take care of the baby. 

Olson remembers one meeting that had to be rescheduled because an employee at Robinson-Perry's worksite had been sent to hospital with chest pain.

"I have to contact the family," Olson remembers Robinson-Perry telling her. "I'm going to make sure that the wife understands what happened."

Robinson-Perry takes her exceptional level of empathy into every situation. While doing her master's she mentored a Grade 10 honours student who is interested in pursuing nursing as part of the Black Youth Mentorship and Leadership Program.

The strength-based mentoring she gave him covered the gamut from resumé writing to job interview preparation and conflict management. It also included an exploration of racism, discrimination and microaggressions, and how to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

Robinson-Perry says she experienced class-based discrimination in Jamaica, but other forms of discrimination such as racism were new to her when she arrived in Canada.

"Initially I employed code shifting to 'fit in,' adjusted my speech to try to disguise my Jamaican accent, straightened my hair as it was deemed a more professional look versus its natural kinky, curly appearance," she explains. "However after some time in Canada, I realized that I wasn't being my true and authentic self. Now I do whatever works best for me.

"I use my encounters as opportunities to educate others who might not have been exposed to other cultures and norms."

Robinson-Perry's long-term goals include pursuing a PhD and becoming a nursing professor. Her openness, self-awareness and commitment to professionalism make her a leader in nursing already, according to Olson.

"She understands, not only theoretically and from a nursing perspective but from a personal perspective, what it takes to manage and balance family life along with being an effective worker," Olson says. "I was very impressed with how she is able to do that."

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