For most in Prince Rupert, Teri Forster is a city councillor, or the Northwest Regional Chair for the B.C. Nurses’ Union (BCNU). However, what many people do not know is that she has spent the last two years working on a Master’s thesis at Royal Roads University in Victoria and now is receiving a Governor General’s Gold Medal Award for her work.
Partnering with Northern Health, Forster’s thesis focused on the voluntary work nurses are doing across the rural North to mitigate the environmental impacts of healthcare and how this work can positively impact large-scale environmental policies in rural healthcare.
Surveying nurses on their everyday actions was key to Forster’s thesis, as she looked to understand their motivation for environmental action.
Forster said she asked nurses in the North: “What are staff doing because they want to, not because somebody has said, ‘hey, go do this.’ What’s working in the system?”
“That is a pretty big contrast because most of the time when nurses are surveyed, they’re asked what’s not working,” she said.
She also asked: “What is exciting us? What’s bringing us to work every single day? And we took that from an environmental sustainability lens.”
Forster remembered when much of her nursing equipment was reusable — a distant memory today, when much of the medical supplies nurses employ are single-use.
“When I was a new grad, we had tons of reusable things,” she said. “Over time, the health authorities have moved to these prepackaged kits that have layers and layers and layers of plastic. And some are great, but we throw out most of what’s in there.”
While having reusable items, such as gowns, can create less waste, Forster’s research found that many hospitals in the region do not have the facilities to do their own laundry, meaning they have to transport large laundry loads long distances. For example, Haida Gwaii ships all of its laundry by boat to Prince Rupert, the nearest hospital with large-scale laundry services available.
“Sometimes, and specifically in our Northern Health, using these single-use isolation gowns is actually better for the environment than multi-use,” she said. “It’s safer for our staff, it’s safer for our patients. There are instances where it’s still OK, but in a lot of our facilities, the better choice is single-use, which is shocking. That’s not what was expected to come of the data.”
Much of Forster’s work focused on the creative ways healthcare in the North can become more sustainable. She said that Northern Health is already operating hydroponic systems to grow food locally, and long-term patients could reap the benefits of these programs by helping grow food for their facility, or even the wider community.
She said engagement with other colleagues shows just how determined nurses in the Northwest are to do their part to combat the climate crisis.
Activities such as shutting off lights and collecting recycling cans that are seen as small-scale, but can have a big difference, according to Forster.
“That sounds small, but nobody told them they had to do that. They did that because they want to conserve electricity and make a difference.”
After her thesis was complete, Forster wasn’t entirely sure if her work would be up to the standard of a Harvard professor, who became her external examiner. However, her fears were alleviated after the examiner lauded her “exceptional work,” and recommended the city councillor for multiple awards.
She said the Canadian Nurses’ Federation has even put her in contact with the World Health Organization, where she’s contributing to toolkits for rural nurses around the world.
When Forster heard about her Governor General’s Gold Medal, which is given to the highest average for graduates at each Canadian university, she was ecstatic.
“I screamed. I was driving to a BCNU meeting and I had pulled over to take a break. So I was on my way to Smithers, pulled over and I started crying,” she said. “I didn’t even know I had been nominated. I didn’t know that it was even a thing.”
Forster is receiving the prestigious award on Nov. 15 in Victoria, while her graduation is on Nov. 16.