Our People in Profile: Public Health nurse Nancy Fitzgerald loves educating and empowering patients

Nancy Fitzgerald is a Public Health nurse in NSHA's Northern Zone.
Nancy Fitzgerald is a Public Health nurse in NSHA's Northern Zone (NSHA).

For registered nurse Nancy Fitzgerald and her fellow health protection team members, working in Public Health is about much more than giving patients their shots.

“It’s so much more than just a needle,” the Elmsdale resident said. “It’s helping empower (patients) to do something that’s hard for them; to learn some coping strategies if they have any anxiety or needle phobias.”

Whether it’s helping people get over their fear of needles or educating them about the importance of immunization, Fitzgerald loves “working with a variety of people” on the Public Health front lines.

She especially enjoys working with the School Immunization Program, which provides two rounds of vaccines for Grade 7 students across the province, with the focus on creating “a supportive environment” for preteens and parents alike.

“I remember when I was a kid you just lined up and you got the immunization,” said Fitzgerald, who works out of the Colchester East Hants Health Centre for Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Northern Zone. “(Now) we spend a lot time helping to get them to a good place so they decide this is what they want to do.”

But it’s not just about making patients comfortable during that moment when the needle pokes their upper arm. It’s also encouraging patients to keep taking an active role in their own health care.

“People think, ‘oh, it’s just a needle,’ but really, people who have problems with immunization at a young age will avoid normal medical follow-up the rest of their lives for other things,” Fitzgerald explained. “So it has a bigger impact long afterwards.”

With that goal in mind, the health protection team will work around students and their families to ensure they are immunized, whether that means bringing in mental health and addictions staff members to help those struggling “with actual needle phobias” or providing office clinics outside of school hours for students with special needs, even if that just means having a parent present.

“Sometimes people just need to talk to a health care professional,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re on the fence (or) they don’t really know what to do,  so we contact multiple families of the Grade 7 students that are not sure about immunizations and just have those conversations.”

“I like working around barriers (to understanding immunization), even if it’s one family at a time, dispelling myths,” she added.

Fitzgerald also serves as a mentor for licensed practical nurses who immunize children five years old and under, provides immunizations for clients of the Opioid Treatment and Recovery Program, helps provide immunization access to other marginalized groups such as First Nations communities, and provides training for new electronic Public Health record-keeping system Panorama, among other duties.

Although she spent half of her nursing career working in acute care, general surgery and vascular surgery at the Halifax Infirmary of the QEII Health Sciences Centre, where “you see the end result from a lifetime of things that could have been prevented, whether it’s smoking or diabetes,” Fitzgerald was drawn to move to Public Health fourteen years ago because of its more long-term approach to health care.

“I love the focus of trying to prevent things or doing things at the very beginning to prevent all of the things that happen down the road,” she said.

Immunization is, of course, a prime example of that.

“In the last 50 years, immunization saved more lives than any other health intervention and it doesn’t get the recognition,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s one of the most proven cost-effective health interventions.”

“Vaccines work, they’re safe and you’re taking a risk of serious disease if you do not immunize,” she added. “Immunization is a no-brainer.”