Dec. 11, 2023

From South Sudan to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to far North, alumni nurse has ‘10 careers in 1’

Alida Fernhout loves the variety and flexibility in her nursing career and humanitarian work
Alida Fernhout in Sachs Harbour in January where it was -57C with windchill.
Alida Fernhout in Sachs Harbour in January where it was -57C with windchill.

Primary care nurse Alida Fernhout, BN’04, says she feels the most alive when she’s out of her comfort zone. And she has definitely pushed herself throughout her nursing career as jobs and humanitarian work have taken her abroad to Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan.

Currently, Fernhout splits her time working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where she’s been for the last 13 years, and up north, as a community health nurse, in remote nursing stations in the Northwest Territories.

“As a primary care nurse, I do everything from chronic disease management to a lot of wound care now,” she says of the Vancouver clinic. “We're open seven days a week. We have doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, part-time respiratory therapists, dietitians, [a] counselor; we have a pharmacy on site and financial management — we help [clients] manage their money. It’s very wraparound — we have psychiatrists and mental health nurses.”

Fernhout says the variety is what she loves about her job: “I can go from treating someone who's come with a heart attack to wound care to pap smear to a disability assessment in one day.”

Alida Fernhout BN'04

Fernhout wearing a T-shirt she produced and sold for a clinic fundraiser in Vancouver's Eastside; DC/HC stands for Downtown Community Health Centre.

Originally from Edmonton, Fernhout did a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Michigan’s Calvin University in the '90s before she came to the University of Calgary to study nursing. Even though she started off adamant about not following in her mother’s footsteps (who was a nurse), it was after living and working as a nanny in the Netherlands for over a year where she realized nursing made the most sense for her. She liked working with people and travelling, and nursing was the profession where those two things intersected.

“Even from a young age, I loved to travel, to learn everything about cultures and languages and it has always been an interest of mine. I thought initially I’d travel and do Australia or the U.K. but in my second year of nursing, I spent a summer volunteering in a remote part of Nigeria and fell in love with that continent.”

After she graduated with her Bachelor of Nursing in 2004, Fernhout worked at the Foothills Hospital in neurosciences for close to four years. She kept a casual rotation in order to stay flexible to volunteer and work abroad in Africa.

Alida in Eldoret, Kenya.

Alida worked with an IDP (internally displaced people) camp in Eldoret, Kenya. "This young girl had fallen and broken her arm while collecting firewood. I facilitated her accessing the hospital and treatment and saw her a few days later at the camp."

Between 2007-2008, she lived in rural Kenya doing an internship in a community health program with a focus on helping individuals living with HIV. In 2008, she moved back to Canada and chose to settle in Vancouver because “I wanted somewhere new and I never go back to the same place.”

In 2014, she spent six months volunteering in a maternity ward in Tanzania with Care Canada. She then did a year in South Sudan shortly after doing nutrition programming for malnourished children through Medair.

“When I got back from South Sudan, I applied and got a job up north on the eight-week job share,” says Fernhout. “To keep my travel itch going, I do contracts in remote nursing stations in the NWT a couple of times per year.”

Fernhout says she loves the relational aspect of nursing. “I really love to meet people where they're at. I feel very honored by being present with people during their struggles. I just want to share their burden a little bit. When I was in Tanzania, it really solidified for me that you do what you can with what you have in the situation. I had to find a place in me where I knew I did what I could with what I had in the moment I was there.”

Fernhout has since completed a Diploma in Tropical Nursing from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and her Master of Public Health from the University of British Columbia. She recognizes that she’s carved a career trajectory that is uniquely suited to her passions and interests, and encourages new nurses and students to get a variety of experiences and exposure to different areas of nursing.

“That’s the other amazing thing about nursing; if you pick one thing and it is not your favourite, it’s not your forever path. You could go from labour and delivery to primary care to critical care. There are so many opportunities and options — you could literally have 10 careers in one.”

Working in fast-paced, high-stress and intense work environments, Fernhout says self-care and mental health are important to prioritize.

“I know when you're a new nurse, you carry the burden of your shift home with you and you lay in bed thinking about all the things you did or didn’t do. I encourage therapy and finding a good crew that you work with — the team makes all the difference.

“Everyone thinks the Downtown Eastside is this horrible hell hole but we have dance parties every Thursday afternoon: we just put on music and dance around the clinic. Things can be horrid, but if [I] feel like the person [I] work with has my back and I can sit and cry with them, I can laugh with them, that makes everything better.”

Fernhout says she loves to mentor and teach and is keen on always upgrading her skills. She’s paused that temporarily as she has been battling long COVID since getting it while working at a COVID testing site.

“I want to express gratitude to all the patients, the people, the clients who have let me into their lives. I wouldn't have been able to have this life without those people allowing me to participate in their life, in their pain and their illness and their wellness.”

The nursing pin tradition

A pinning ceremony is a traditional part of many nursing institutions’ graduating events. The pinning formalizes the transition from student to professional nurse.

The tradition itself has roots back to the 12th century but is more typically associated with Florence Nightingale. By the early 20th century, it became standard in North America to award all nursing graduates a pin to celebrate their successes as students and their futures in the profession.

Before the Faculty of Nursing started offering class pins for graduands in 2018, students organized in their own way for their graduating class. Fernhout did a pin for the Class of 2004 and gave us the backstory on how that came together:

“My mom went to nursing school in the '60s. She still has, to this day, her gorgeous wool nursing cape and her uniforms which she hated wearing. They got scars on their neck from the collars because they had to be starched so much.

“I wanted to have some sort of memorabilia from nursing school and my mom still has her nursing pin, so I looked at that and just came up with a very basic design and had them produced. I sold them at cost to fellow students and I think I sold probably about 50 or so pins. The year [2004] was imprinted on the back of it.”