Nov. 18, 2021

Master of Nursing student passionate about nursing education, autism and rural nursing

RN Jess Gurnsey on her nursing school journey and how it took her from Calgary to Hardisty and Wainwright and back
Jess Gurnsey
Jess Gurnsey in Hardisty, Alberta

Unlike most nurses who only eventually find their way to graduate studies after working as an RN, Jess Gurnsey knew she wanted to do her master’s degree while she was completing her Bachelor of Nursing degree at Mount Royal University. She wanted to explore nursing education around autism and how that education can be incorporated into health care.

From her previous work as a behaviour therapist for children living with autism, Gurnsey witnessed challenges in the health-care system for both sides – the child living with autism and health-care personnel interacting with them. Often, many of the children she worked with were nonverbal and had challenging behaviours. Most had “severe autism,” meaning their cognitive capacity was less than a five-year old but were physically 14 to 18 years old.

“Finding ways to better their lives in the health-care system was something that I've dedicated myself to do,” she says. “It's important because the health-care system is shaped in one way and it does not like to bend for other people.”

She was inspired by one of her professors in her undergraduate years (Debbie Mansell, who herself, is doing her PhD at UCalgary) to pursue her masters. Gurnsey says once she was accepted into the program, everything moved very quickly.

She laughs: “I graduated, I finished my courses in April of that year, then I had a graduation in June, I wrote my NCLEX in July and then I started my master's end of August.”

Gurnsey chose to go the thesis-based master’s route and says the experience in the program has also pushed her in various ways.

“Graduate studies open many doors and windows. It enables you to see so many different positions. More than that, it takes you further on your evidence-based, practice journey. I thought that I had the question about nurse education and autism figured out. I was significantly challenged in my courses where I was forced to look at it from different angles.”

Coming in, Gurnsey thought she’d look at nursing education but over the last few years, her focus has evolved to look at how nurses work alongside children, living with autism, in the hospital setting.

“I’ll be using narrative inquiry so focusing more on stories and finding different threads together,” she says. “To sound really cheesy, I think that doing my master's has made me into a better nurse.”

Jess Gurnsey is currently a thesis-based Master of Nursing student at UCalgary Nursing.

Jess Gurnsey is currently a thesis-based Master of Nursing student at UCalgary Nursing.

Gurnsey currently works in clinical neurosciences at the Foothills Medical Centre. She aims to finish her degree in 2023.  

In 2020, when the pandemic first hit, Gurnsey added herself to the COVID-19 float pool and ended up as a rural nurse working at the Hardisty Health Centre and in Wainwright Health Centre. Gurnsey arrived to Hardisty just after they closed the emergency department and acute care to protect the residents as COVID-19 hit. Gurnsey is now casual in long-term care at Hardisty Health Centre and has taken an LOA from her position in acute care (combined medical/surgical) and the emergency department at Wainwright Health Centre. 

“If you're considering rural, you should take the plunge. There's so much autonomy in rural. I found that I learned numerous things very quickly. I was able to do so many different things in rural that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do in the city, as early on, in my career.”

Gurnsey says her first code blue happened in the rural setting but that so many of her seasoned colleagues were supportive and kept checking in on her after it to make sure she was okay.

“It gave, at least for myself, a sense of freedom that I didn't know existed. Like if I need to hold blood pressure meds because my patient’s blood pressure is very hypotensive, I can do that without having to immediately inform the physician in rural. In the city, I have to inform the charge nurse who informs the physicians, and in rural, I work so closely with all of the physicians.”

Gurnsey feels in rural work, there's also opportunities for more education. “We get to do our own ECGs too, like if someone needs an ECG, if diagnostic imaging isn't there.. As nurses we’re taught how to do them, so I can literally just run down to diagnostic imaging. I can grab the ECG machine, bring it up and then I can do my own ECG which is pretty empowering - knowing how to do all these things and be able to execute them.”

Gurnsey says looking forward, her ultimate dream is to become a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) at the Alberta Children's Hospital who specifically consults on cases of children, living with autism, and create care plans for them.

“I would love to see a position, where I work closely with the child life specialists. I’d love to consult on every child living with autism who comes into the hospital and create a care plan for them. Having a CNS who has a body of knowledge around this topic, could also be really useful.

“As nurses, we can offer some really unique solutions when we're given additional opportunities to look at either different problems or different diseases from varying angles.” 

Gurnsey’s supervisor for her thesis is Dr. Andrew Estefan. Gurnsey has presented at the 2020 Atlantic Provinces Autism Conference. She has also placed first in the Faculty of Nursing’s 2021 Research Day 3 minute thesis, and placed third in her heat for the 2020 University-wide 3 minute thesis competition. Gurnsey hopes to give a TedTalk one day.