This spring, Rosemary Donkin’s daughter is graduating from the University of Prince Edward Island with a nursing degree, making Elizabeth the fourth generation of Rosemary’s family to be a registered nurse.
But that’s not the only way in which Elizabeth has followed in her mother’s footsteps. By studying for her nursing degree while working and raising two children, with the help of a very supportive husband, she was very much influenced by her mother’s example.
After graduating from high school in Amherst, Rosemary studied nursing at the Victoria General in Halifax and practiced clinical bedside nursing, mostly with children, from 1973 until 1989.
During that time, after she began working full-time in Amherst, she met and married Phillip Donkin, a respiratory therapist and beef farmer from Mount Pleasant. Both Rosemary and Phillip had young children from previous marriages (the oldest was 12) and when blended, they became a family of nine, with four boys and one girl.
For some people, that would be challenge enough but in 1989, Rosemary was offered a job as the Education Coordinator for five hospitals in Cumberland County. The new job with regular day hours and travel came with a catch.
“A degree in nursing was a requirement for me to work in that position,” Rosemary says. “It forced me to remain marketable, to look at what I was doing personally and professionally, and to learn and accept the responsibility I was asking other people to do.”
As Education Coordinator (a job that would eventually become district-wide and involve nine hospitals in three counties), Rosemary was responsible for coordinating all learning and development programs for hospital staff, programs such as CPR, arthritis management, and palliative care.
“With this job, I was able to combine my love of nursing and my love of teaching,” explains Rosemary of her decision to move out of bedside nursing and into management.
It took her seven years to earn her nursing degree from the University of New Brunswick, studying part-time (mostly by distance education courses) while working full-time, raising five active children, and supporting a husband who also worked full-time and ran a beef farm. A year after she graduated, a promotion inspired her to enroll at St. FX for a Masters degree in adult education.
“I earned two degrees in the heated room of the rink and in the back of the Leicester hall at 4H meetings,” she laughs. “For many years, we would spend five nights a week at the rink and on weekends. And when we were driving to Yarmouth or Cape Pele or wherever the hockey tournament was, I would be listening to my university lectures on a tape deck or doing my homework. Or I sat at the kitchen table, still in the hub of the family. I did my homework will the kids did theirs.”
Rosemary credits the support of her family for making it all work out.
“Money was a major challenge but my family was extremely helpful. For every birthday and Christmas, I would receive money or textbooks or money for tuition. That happened a lot,” she says. She also admits to looking at a cow and wondering if it could pay for another course.
She says her husband kept her going through the tough slogs and financial strains.
“When I’d get really discouraged, he’d say, ‘It’s just for another six weeks. We can do anything for six weeks’. He was behind me 100 per cent for all of it.”
That’s the advice she gives to other women who want to further their careers but aren’t sure if they juggle home and school and the financial strain for several years.
“You have to look at it in very small blocks. If you look at whole thing, it’s overwhelming,” Rosemary advises. “If I’d looked at the whole thing, I couldn’t have done it but when I put it into blocks of three months [a semester], I could get through that. That’s how I tackled it. I hate to study but I love to learn new things and the only way to learn them is to study them.”
It seems there is no job you can give to Rosemary that she won’t see the educational potential in. When the Northern Regional Health Board was dissolved and her job as Education Coordinator was dissolved along with it, Rosemary took a position as a nurse supervisor at East Cumberland Lodge in Pugwash. Within a few months, she became the facility’s administrator.
“I figured I should know a little bit more about looking after people in long-term care so I enrolled in the Continuing Care program at St. FX. It’s a specialty in home-care and long-term care with a focus on the elderly,” she says.
Rosemary calls her tenure at ECL it a very special time in her life.
“It was a very humbling experience. There was so much kindness in the building. It was overwhelming for me sometimes, knowing how kind and patient the staff could be,” she says.
Rosemary began her nursing career with children, moved into adult education in a hospital setting then ended her career with seniors. It isn’t surprising then to find her new passion is at the very end of the human health spectrum: palliative care.
“The Cumberland County Hospice/Palliative Care Society is going to construct a hospice building for Cumberland County,” she says. “A stand-alone hospice. It will be one of the first in Atlantic Canada. It’s for people of all ages who are at the end of their life who, for whatever reason, are unable to stay in their own home or within their own community but who don’t need to be in an acute care hospital.”
Rosemary has been involved in palliative care since she began working as an education coordinator in 1989 and calls the palliative outreach program at the hospital in Amherst one of the best in the province. Of the new hospice home, she says, “It will be a place of hope, a place of joy and a place of comfort.”
Through all of these years, Rosemary did have one activity was separate from work and study, and nurtured her love of music: She’s been a member of the Cobequid Fun-Tones (a barbershop-style singing group) since 1989.
“I’ve always said the Fun-Tones was the thing I didn’t have time for but I had to have time for. Even though I worked in Amherst, our children were educated in Oxford and I wanted to have more of my social life involved in this community.”
Now a co-director with the Fun-Tones, she’s counting down the days until June when the Fun-Tones make a much-anticipated trip to Newfoundland for a convention and contest.