“Why are you so happy?” Oksana does not have to think to answer the question. Despite the trauma she’s faced and the pain she’s experienced, she is grateful. “I have good health and I have my family, my greatest treasure. Anything can make you happy, even something as simple as a sunny day.” Having lost things, like her entire town and many loved ones in Ukraine, makes her even more grateful for what she does have.
I have good health and I have my family, my greatest treasure. Anything can make you happy, even something as simple as a sunny day.
Growing up in Ukraine, Oksana had a good life. She remembers class trips for dental checkups and dreamed of becoming a dentist to one day help school children. However, as she got older and witnessed mental health challenges around her being ignored, Oksana became determined to support people through their mental health struggles. Today, as a Psychiatric Nurse, Oksana helps people of all ages struggling with mental health, addiction, and substance use.
It is hard to believe that this confident, happy, successful individual, the 2022 recipient of Stenberg College’s prestigious Student of the Year award, was terrified and reluctant to come to Canada less than 10 years ago. Her insecurities and inability to speak English left her afraid of change and clinging to the comforts of home. After obtaining her psychology degree in Ukraine, Oksana decided she didn’t want to only be pen pals with her younger brother, so at the age of 21, she moved to Canada and joined the rest of her family, who had immigrated four years prior.
Coming to Canada
The grief of leaving her home country devastated Oksana. She had a full life in Ukraine. She had friends, a routine, and she knew the language. Her fear of change, of starting over in a new country where she only knew the alphabet, was overwhelming. So, when Oksana arrived in Canada, she cried, and cried… and cried. She remembers, “I was afraid to speak to people. I wore headphones without plugging them in because I was scared someone would talk to me, and I wouldn’t know how to respond. My self-confidence was gone.”
To help with the transition, Oksana’s mother brought her to a career fair, where she learned about the Surrey Crime Prevention Society. She began volunteering and slowly, change started to seem a little less scary. Making new friends can have that affect.
Finally feeling more comfortable in her new home, Oksana took her life in her hands and decided the only tears she would cry would be tears of joy. She signed up for English classes and got a job in security at Surrey Memorial Hospital (SMH), where she met people from all walks of life. “This was the best experience for an immigrant. I was still learning English, so all the different accents and personalities were challenging, but they helped me learn.” Having to communicate with her colleagues through walkie-talkies added a layer of hilarity and nuance to her English language education.
Not only did Oksana meet her “Canadian family” at SMH, but she also realized what she was meant to do. “Working security at the hospital, I regularly got called into intense situations. I realized that I communicate well with people who are distressed.”
Oksana returned to school and to her childhood dream of helping people. She became a Mental Health Care Worker, which is “a care aide in the mental health field. We do personal care, like helping with feeding and life skills.” Oksana loved her role as a Mental Health Care Worker. She was working with a population she cared about deeply and felt like she was doing something that mattered… but Oksana was determined to do more. “Nurses have more opportunities to advocate. I wanted to affect greater change.”
To go, or not to go
For two years, Oksana toyed with the idea of enrolling in Stenberg’s Psychiatric Nursing program, but taking the leap was not easy. She was more confident now, but self-doubt has its way of creeping in. “I was afraid I wasn’t good enough.”
It is hard to say exactly what prompted Oksana to take the next step and enroll. Perhaps she was influenced by a past relationship, in which her partner, whom she loved very much, fell into addiction. “I’m not angry. I’m sad that I didn’t have the chance to help him have a better life and get away from substance use.”
In all likelihood, it was a combination of things: Her lifelong desire to help people, wishing she could have done more for her ex-boyfriend, her growing confidence, and her determination to be in a profession where she could advocate for her patients.
In March of 2020, Oksana began what would be a life-changing journey. “I was very insecure when I started the program, but I said that whatever happens, I will get through it. I will survive.”
Back to school
As the program progressed, so did Oksana. She excelled in her courses and became a leader in class. On the first day, she created a WhatsApp group to help everyone stay connected through the rigour of Stenberg’s Psychiatric Nursing program. “Every time I saw an exciting resource, I would share it. If we had a bad day, I would message and say, ‘We did it,’ or send a funny video to lighten the mood. I was genuinely happy to be in the program and smiled all the time. I wanted to make the best of every day.”
Her hard work and positive attitude impressed her instructors. One instructor, Amber Davis, shared, “Oksana has a gentle energy and thoughtful kindness that is deserving of recognition. Her presence has a positive impact.” Another instructor, Mebs Karim, echoed a similar sentiment. “Oksana demonstrated excellent theoretical knowledge and application in clinical practice. She was a leader who assisted students who struggled. She will be an asset to the Psychiatric Nursing profession.”
Not only did Oksana achieve a remarkable 95% grade point average, but she also grew on a personal level. “Stenberg gave me all the tools and now the ball was in my court. Even if English is not my first language, I can still be kind. If I don’t know something, I can learn it. Not speaking perfectly is not permanent. I learned that with support, I can do anything, and gained the confidence to believe in myself.”
Even if English is not my first language, I can still be kind. If I don’t know something, I can learn it. Not speaking perfectly is not permanent.
Grateful for a sunny day
It was not just in class that Oksana excelled. In one of her clinical placements, Oksana noticed an elderly woman unable to get under her blankets. Immediately, Oksana went in to help. Wanting to make this patient feel special, she made small talk and pointed out the beautiful view, and bright sun that was illuminating the room. “She told me she was waiting for her husband, forgetting he had passed away a few years ago. She showed me his picture and we talked about him. She asked, ‘Can you hold my hand for a few minutes?’ I said, ‘Sure, I can.’ We continued talking and as she was falling asleep, she said, ‘We need more people like you.’” Tearing up at the memory, Oksana explains how this moment affirmed her decision to become a Psychiatric Nurse. She is there for people, just as she always dreamed.
For Oksana, going to the hospital is so much more than just going to a workplace. It is going to a place where she can fulfill her purpose, where she can make a difference. “When I’m at the hospital, I feel like I have wings. It inspires me. I forget that I’m tired or that I have problems in my life. This is where I’m meant to be.”
At the hospital, I feel like I have wings. It inspires me. I forget that I’m tired or that I have problems in my life. This is where I’m meant to be.
From if to when
Always humble, it is hard for Oksana to believe she made it through the program. “I used to say, ‘If I graduate…’ Now, I can finally say, “When I graduate…’” It is no surprise that Oksana never had the chance to think if she would find a job after graduation, as she graduated with employment offers from Royal Columbian Hospital and Red Fish Healing Centre for Mental Health and Addiction.
Now a Psychiatric Nurse, Oksana brings her whole heart to her job every day. When caring for her patients, she truly empathizes with what they are going through. “Because of my experience with my ex-boyfriend, I feel for the families who seek advice about their loved ones in my care.”
It is not just her patients who reap the benefits of Oksana’s kind heart. “From housekeeping to security and now nursing, I’ve done it all. We are a team and I make sure to listen to the people around me. We come to work to make people feel better, and that includes our colleagues. That is why we are Psychiatric Nurses.”