I just finished a long two months of work way up in Northern British Columbia in Fort Nelson! (Minus one week home at the end of January). I had originally sent my recruiter two sets of dates…three weeks in January and four weeks in February…and the facility in Fort Nelson requested me for both! I decided to drive all the way there and fly home for the week in between. It was great having a truck up North in the cold weather and also for adventuring purposes. To be completely honest, I had pretty low expectations going into this contract. Little did I know, it turned out to be one of my favourite locations thus far.
Fort Nelson, BC used to be a booming oil and forestry town with it’s major economy being natural gas and the pipeline. The current population is around 3000 but it used to be much more. It’s definitely the smallest place I have worked in yet. It is right on the Alaska Highway situated as the Gateway to the Northern Rockies. There are empty buildings and houses for sale everywhere due to a horrible crashing market when all of the lucrative industries shut down. It appears to be a very dead town but there’s a lot of life here still. There is no McDonald’s or Wal-Mart; I’d say Boston Pizza is the nicest restaurant they have. There is a Tim Hortons though! (An important Canadian staple). There’s also a huge recreational center with hockey rinks and a pool and a walking track. Many have left Fort Nelson and handed their houses over to the bank in the process…foreclosures were very popular there. The population is mostly Indigenous and, oddly enough, Newfies! A ton of people came over from Newfoundland way back when and have stayed there ever since.
Even though the town may seem depressing at first, I fell in love with it and with the people most of all. I found myself slowly seeing the beauty of this place during the first month of my contract. I discovered an admiration for this little community and the Northern Rockies visible in the distance. Yeah, it was freaking COLD (-40 degrees C!!) but I made the best of it. I explored so much and made so many new friends. I even signed a THIRD contract to go back there in May! Call me crazy, but I love the Northern BC life.
When I first got to the hospital in Fort Nelson, it was not at all what I was expecting. Long story short, it’s basically a nursing station. Since so many people have left the town, most of the hospital staff have moved on as well. As a result of this, they closed down the Emergency Department, the Operating Room, and the Labor & Delivery unit. They also got rid of the Physiotherapy department, education department and most mental health services. These units of the hospital sit empty and I find it heartbreaking to see this! They do not deliver babies there (minus the occasional surprise!) because there is no OR for an emergency C-section. Since about 2012, all expecting mothers have to plan to move to a surrounding town weeks before their due dates and they also have to sign a waiver of understanding. The surgeon that worked there died unexpectedly a few years back and they never replaced him.
There are seven long term care beds there plus four ALC patients on the acute side. Other than that there is room for about 10-12 other acute patients… but the most I ever had was four or five. There is also one locked seclusion room for psych patients. The ER runs as an outpatient clinic with the occasional serious trauma coming in via ambulance. Everything requiring a higher level of care gets sent out to Prince George or Vancouver mostly. There is no pharmacy on site so it is actually common to run out of drugs. It was also common to occasionally run out of supplies such as 1 L bags of Normal Saline! I don’t think that will happen again though!!
At first I was extremely intimidated about working in this rural of a place. The thought of helping out in the ER scared me. I had zero prior Emerge experience; I’m a surgical nurse through and through. I ended up learning SO much while I was there. In a nursing station you are exposed to so many cases and it’s only you and another RN. There is also an LPN with a very limited scope of practice (no IV medications etc. which is completely different from Ontario where I’m from!). The doctor is only on call which is extremely foreign to me. I witnessed a “surprise” birth for the very first time- thankfully there were zero complications. I did ECGs, removed a cast, administered a dopamine drip, assisted with suturing, and gained so much experience in primary care in general…all things that I would never have been exposed to had I stayed in my little surgical bubble back home. It’s kind of nice having mostly the same patients every day…I built wonderful relationships with the residents and I looked forward to seeing them every day.
Something I really noticed in Fort Nelson was how much autonomy the nurses have. They assess the patients first then call the doctor based on their findings. If it’s something minor, the doc might not even have to come in to see the patient. I find the doctors have a lot of respect for the nurses because of this and it’s a healthy professional environment because of that. All of the full time nurses (there are only five) have at least 20 years of experience. Therefore…what a GREAT place to learn. My nursing knowledge has grown so much. They are a wealth of knowledge and I’ll forever be grateful for all the growth and learning I did while there!
Even though there were a ton of positive aspects of working in such a small place, there were also some things that I didn’t care for. First is the safety aspect. Only having two nurses on overnight was stressful at times. If a big trauma ever came in, or if a patient would have fallen for example, it could be potentially difficult to handle with only two people. There was rarely a nurse on call to come in. Because of this, a lot of the staff are super burnt out from working a lot of overtime. This creates a stressful work environment when nurses are not able to have proper self care. I was happy to help out with this but found myself even starting to feel the same way. There’s a HUGE need for nurses up in these Northern communities and I’m really starting to notice this in the recent months I’ve been up there. While I was there, the health authority even sent out a memo to the town and municipality instructing patients of the staffing shortage and to only use the ER for emergencies. This helped facilitate more traffic through the medical clinic for minor things such as coughs and colds.
Another thing I wasn’t particularly fond of was the whole “small town vibe”. Everyone truly knows everybody there. It can be a good thing but when it comes to health care I think it can be a little much. Word travels fast such as a mother being in labour…most of the town knew about it before the baby was even born. Patient confidentiality is a huge importance there (and yes it is everywhere you go). Most of the nurses know their patients and patient’s families outside of work which can be awkward at times. Even after two months there, I ran into patients out at the bar one night and I didn’t know how to handle it! I’m so not used to this because my home facility is HUGE in comparison.
Adding to that, the lack of resources was a big learning curve for me. I’m so used to having an RT (respiratory therapist) on call, or a CT scan readily available for a Code Stroke. I’m slowly getting used to the lack of resources with every contract I complete. This one was different though because of the isolation factor. The closest health care centre is four hours away. That’s critical when it’s someone with stroke symptoms needing tPA. Flights rarely fly out on time due to weather conditions. Patients literally live in Fort Nelson knowing they are risking their health and their lives if something were to happen to them. That’s so wild to me!
While in Fort Nelson, I stayed in two different accommodations. In January, I was housed in the residence which is in the basement of the hospital. There are five rooms down there, two and a half bathrooms, a little kitchen and a large common area. It was straight up my least favourite housing I’ve ever stayed in. The facilities were completely fine and I liked it, but I really struggled with living and working in the same building 24/7. I discovered that I am the type of person who really needs to separate work from home. It’s also very difficult living with and working with the same people. You don’t get the break you need from them which can be unhealthy. For me, I felt myself get into a bit of a rut as I was surrounded by negativity and it really impacted my mental health near the end of my first contract. I spent some time crying on the phone with my boyfriend and parents who talked me through some things. I am not going to get into details, but I ended up learning a lot about myself through this experience. I learned that I can’t change anyone, only my personal mindset and attitude. Also, a week at home in between was perfect! If I didn’t get that break to reset myself, I probably would not have enjoyed my time there as much. I try to stay as positive as I can but I do like being honest as well so I try not to sugar coat things! 🙂
On the other hand, my housing in February was AMAZING. They put me up in the town house which is where the locum doctors and visiting employees usually stay. It’s a brand new place and I felt so unbelievably lucky to live there. They have no idea how much it actually helped me to stay at that place. I was living there alone for the entire month, minus a few days where some education staff from down South stayed there. I had a master bedroom with an en-suite bathroom and a garage to park the truck in which was such a luxury. I’m forever grateful for staying there and I really hope that I can be housed there again when I return! I won’t have a vehicle next time but it would be a beautiful little walk to and from work…plus it will be much warmer weather by then! Fingers crossed.
Whenever I am considering a contract, I always browse online for what there is to do wherever I’m debating on living. I always go hiking and explore the town to get a real feel for the place. When I looked up Fort Nelson, there was not a ton to do in the wintertime at first glance. I ended up doing and seeing SO much though. I can’t say enough good things about this community and also the beauty of Northern BC in the winter time.
As far as things to do, I drove to both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories which crossed two more provinces/territories off my list! The Yukon is only about six hours away and the NWT is about two! Both of those days were great adventures. I saw so many buffalo on the highway which I will never forget! On the way to the Yukon, I went to the Liard River Hot Springs which was an experience in itself. Go read my hilarious blog post here if you missed it! I also wrote a post about our day in the Northwest Territories if you want to read more about that as well!
Another exciting thing that I experienced in the North was dog sledding!!! We had an amazing day at Streeper Kennels and I gladly crossed that off my bucket list. Go read about it here if you want to learn all about it, or dog sledding in general! Side note… this particular blog post has blown up in the community here. It was shared all over Facebook and the owner of the newspaper is apparently interested in me writing for them about it. I’ve never had so many views on my blog before! I love it!
Other things to do in Fort Nelson include snow shoeing and cross country skiing on the many trails around town. There’s also the huge rec center with the walking track, rock climbing wall, pool and sauna. There’s a couple cute little shops around town and a really nice Visitor’s Centre to walk through. My favourite place to eat was this health food store where they made the BEST food. I can’t wait to come back just to eat there again! There was also this really cool bridge that I drove over that doubles as two-way traffic and a one lane train track! It was pretty sketchy!! Fort Nelson is known for being one of the best places in Canada to view the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). I had an app on my phone to notify me when they were visible and after several attempts I sadly was never successful with seeing them! Hopefully in May I will be able to!
The best part about Fort Nelson was all the friends I made while there. I made amazing connections with people and they had such a positive impact on my life! I became pretty close with some of the paramedics and spent a lot of time with them which made me so happy! We are even planning a trip to ALASKA at the end of my next contract! I can’t wait. I also reunited with a nurse that I lived with in Prince Rupert who also came up to Nelly to work for a couple of weeks. It was so nice to see him and actually work with him this time! We went all the way to Muncho Lake one day and went ice fishing! It was one of my favourite days while there! The best was just getting together with friends and having a spontaneous bonfire out at the lake or having a wine night together. I went out one night to the bar in town with some incredible co-workers and it was SO much fun. Those are the types of memories that I’ll remember forever when I think of my time in Fort Nelson.
I’ve honestly never been impacted so much while on a contract. There’s something about this place that I just fell in love with. I could probably live here full time and I never feel that way about anywhere. I learned so much about myself and most of it is related to relationships and human interactions. I learned that I thrive in a small hospital and I connected with the staff in such a positive way. They all impacted me for the better and I truly hope that I did the same for them. A few people told me that they love my vibe and positivity which made me really proud. They’ve been having a tough time there lately with staffing shortages so if I could be a tiny light for them through that then I feel like I accomplished something much more important than just filling a schedule need.
I really loved the management there and I feel a lot for them for coming into this new place and having to deal with the shortages and lack of resources. Hopefully Northern Health can figure something out to deal with the staffing issues in these Northern communities! If you’re reading this and are interested in moving up here, please consider it! If I could, I would! They are also very much in need of agency nurses so please go work there if you can!
I hope this was enjoyable for you to read! I feel like a completely different person after the past two months. It’s hard to put into words even though I try to with this blog! It makes me emotional just thinking over everything. Travel nursing is the best decision I’ve ever made for so many reasons. I genuinely can’t wait to come back to Fort Nelson and see everyone again!
Thanks for reading!