Patients in the James L. Hiscox Neurosurgical Unit at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre require very specialized care. As the name suggests, the unit treats patients with brain injuries or who need brain surgery, as well patients with spinal and neck injuries. Often these injuries can result in personality changes and mood disorders, leading them to act out in different ways.
“Neuro became a specialized unit in part because with the severity of their injuries, it’s safer for the patient,” said Kim Belluz, one of the nurses who work on the unit. The unit itself is equipped to handle neurological injuries from both a physical and an emotional/cognitive standpoint.
For one thing, it is a quieter unit, tucked away at the end of 3C. This is important because the condition of the patients can be changed by the environment.
“Patients with neurological injuries react very differently to sounds and activity around them than say a patient in a regular medical unit,” Belluz said. “Their mood or condition can change like that.”
Belluz is one of the 17 nurses on the unit. Originally from Thunder Bay, Belluz went to Confederation College to get her nursing diploma and worked in Corpus Christi, TX before returning home. Soon after in 2000, she was offered a chance to join the neurosurgical team – and she took it.
“I had never worked with neurosurgical patients before and thought it would be a great new learning experience,” Belluz said.
In fact she enjoyed it so much that in 2005 she took her neuroscience certification, part of the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) accreditation program. That was no small feat – working full-time with a family and studying for the accreditation can be challenging. On top of that, certification must be renewed every five years.
“It’s a lot of work,” Belluz said.
To date, 10 of the 17 nurses working on the unit have completed or are currently taking this optional accreditation. To put that in perspective, as of July there were only 305 nurses in Canada certified in neuroscience nursing and 122 nurses in Ontario – and almost 10% of those are here in Thunder Bay.
Belluz also completed a Post RN BScN program through Lakehead University.
Accreditation is just one of many changes to neuroscience over the years. Sharon Kentner, who started with the unit in the early 1970’s, has been there for most of them.
“The neurosurgical unit has just changed so much,” Kentner said.
For example, Kentner said she’s noticed how seatbelt use has helped reduce injuries.
New technology and treatment approaches have helped improve patient care too. Years ago a patient with a neck injury would have to remain immobile for three months, but now that same patient might be up and about a day after surgery.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the teamwork approach, which has always been a hallmark of the neurosurgical unit. The unit requires multidisciplinary team of occupational therapists, physiotherapists, dietitians, and speech language pathologists. Family members also play a huge role in the patient’s recovery.
Kentner, who retired this year, said that she’ll miss the team and the unit.
“We all work together to make the patient outcome the best that it can be,” Kentner said. “Sometimes we go home so tired, but after a good rest we are back there again, because we know we can and do make a difference in our patients’ lives. It’s what makes me love my work. I am going to miss it.”