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Laura Neilsen and Jessica Chan: How volunteering led to careers in health care


Laura Neilsen

In 2004, Laura Neilsen had finished university and moved to Vancouver, a major change from the small Okanagan community where she grew up. She was getting used to her new home, lived near Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), and was considering her next career move.

With a background in science, Laura had lots of experience working in labs, but felt drawn to working with people. She contemplated going back to school to pursue a career in health care, and decided to spend some time in a health-care environment, lifting the spirits of patients at VGH, and, ultimately learning about herself.

She signed up as a volunteer with the “Friendly Visitor Program." Once a week, for a few hours, Laura visited patients all over the hospital who were there for extended periods and did not have many social connections in the city.

“I think I went to every floor of the hospital," Laura reflects. “I would bring them magazines, movies and music. We would play cards – I actually love playing crib! Some people just wanted those resources – the books or magazines — and others wanted to chat. The patients enjoyed it – it was an opportunity for important social connection."

Laura spoke with people of all ages, from youth to seniors. As valuable and therapeutic as it was for clients, she found it was equally valuable for herself. “It gave me the ability to talk to such diverse people – people I wouldn't have met in my everyday life. I heard a lot of stories, and enjoy that interaction. It helps to give you a trauma-informed lens."

Laura's experience at VGH solidified her decision to pursue a career in health care. She went to nursing school, and started working as a nurse in the Public Health program with VCH in 2008. Since then, she has held several nursing leadership roles in a variety of settings. Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she began as a manager for the Regional Public Health and Prevention Program on a temporary basis, and is now permanent.

Nearly twenty years later, she recognizes how those experiences still inform her work. “In those stories, you hear where someone is at and how they may interact with the health-care system. You get to form a relationship with the client and work with them from where they are and being able to have conversations with others is an important skill of nursing."

Jessica Chan

Similarly, in 2013, Jessica Chan, who today is a Speech Language Pathologist at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, began volunteering with the health authority where she would eventually work. “I was a volunteer with the Speech Language Pathology Department under the supervision of a speech language pathologist," she explains. “My role was to support and work one-on-one with an outpatient client who has aphasia."

Aphasia is a neurological condition that can affect one's ability to express themselves in speaking and writing as well as understanding what is heard or read. Aphasia can occur after brain injury or stroke.

Jessica had been working on her second degree in education when she first learned about speech language pathology (SLP). She thought the field sounded intriguing. “I wanted to learn more about it. Then the next day, my mom read about SLP in the newspaper and she said the same thing to me, that it sounded fascinating and the profession really matched my personality. Naturally, I took this as a sign. So I did my research, found GF Strong and applied to volunteer," she says.

Volunteering gave Jessica her first exposure to working with people with aphasia. She fell in love with it. “I was like 'this is it!' This was what I wanted to do. Despite knowing how competitive the SLP programs are, I decided to pursue my career in this field and applied to schools with my supervisor's and client's encouragement."

Volunteering at GF Strong also helped give her a glimpse into the people she works with and to appreciate the culture at the centre, which she says is friendly, warm and welcoming to all the clients and staff. “I really think it was the volunteer experience itself that made me realize what a great facility this is and why it's world-renowned; and it made me realize that I wanted to be an SLP here," Jessica adds.

She was hired at VCH in 2017 and began working at GF Strong right before the pandemic in early 2020.

Give it a try

For both Jessica and Laura, volunteering was an integral step that ultimately led them to their chosen careers. They encourage anyone interested in volunteering with VCH to try it. A decade or two later, you may just find you have many warm memories of giving back to your community, and that it was the start of a rewarding career.

April 24 to 30 is National Volunteer Week. Thank you to all volunteers who give their time to patients, clients and residents across VCH, embodying empathy in action.

Interested in volunteering? Learn more about volunteering at VCH

SOURCE: Laura Neilsen and Jessica Chan: How volunteering led to careers in health care ( )
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