Deborah Schuh: The nurse who has done it all


Deborah Schuh once swaddled newborn babies in their first moments of life, as a longtime labour and delivery nurse. Deb, as her friends and co-workers fondly call her, has assisted surgeons in the operating room, and comforted families with sick children in the paediatric unit. She knows the ins and outs of a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and passed scalpels and syringes to a plastic surgeon. What does the nurse who has done it all, do next? For Schuh, the answer proved to be passing on her skills to the next generation of health care providers.

“To be able to teach nursing, you have to first be a nurse,” she says. “Some teachers have been out of the field for a long time, but students love the stories that practicing nurses have. If you haven’t been out there, you just don’t know what it’s like.”

Schuh’s job as the coordinator for the Personal Support Worker (PSW) program at Durham College means that she wears many hats: addressing student concerns, mentoring staff, updating curriculum, and teaching courses are all part of a day in the life at the college’s Oshawa, Ontario campus. It’s a position Schuh took in 2003, in the midst of a hectic lifestyle as a shift-working nurse and mother of three. Fifteen years later, Schuh says her role as an educator is one she cannot ever imagine growing tired of.

Now in her mid-40’s, Schuh says the key to being an effective leader at the school is ensuring that her own skills are up to date, and choosing a curriculum that evolves with the heath care system.

Unlike nurses who administer medical care, PSW’s assist their (often elderly) patients with daily tasks like bathing, dressing, hygiene assistance, and medication dispersion. PSW care is notoriously dinged with underfunding and workplace inconsistencies, as both the provincial government and private companies provide their services. While PSW training lacks the politics that the real work situation has, the program introduces its share challenges for students.

“It’s a tough program,” says Schuh. “Some students who aren’t successful in nursing come back to do the PSW program thinking it will be easy, but it’s intense. It’s a very busy two semesters.”

“Busy” means to over 740 hours of in-class and practical experience for students. To earn an Ontario College Certificate for the program, they must complete their two semesters of classroom and lab time on campus, plus 355 hours of practicum, long term care, and hospital rotations. Durham’s program requires almost 150 more hours of experience than what the provincial regulations mandate.

“We are known very well within the province as being a quality program: our Key Performance Indicators [college grading system based on satisfaction, graduate employment, and graduation rates] scream this loudly,” says Schuh.

According to Schuh, the program has consistently been a front runner in PSW education: for one, due to its ever-evolving curriculum and on-the-job requirements, but also because of its longstanding implementation of innovative technology.

High fidelity simulators- essentially mannequins that have vital signs, deliver babies, and sweat, just to name a few of their many lifelike functions- have been an integral part of the PSW program at Durham College for over 10 years. While other schools have reserved these simulation labs for nursing students, Schuh recognizes the value in allowing all aspiring health care workers to experience their benefits.

“Other than treating a real person, simulation labs are as close as we can get to providing students with real life situations before they move to clinical care,” she says.

Second year Practical Nursing student Anna Poida says that practicing on mannequins has enhanced her health care education at Durham College.

“When I practice on mannequins, I can easily see the gaps in my knowledge and as a result, I know what information I need to review,” she says. “The important thing is that I can make mistakes in the lab but in the hospital setting such mistakes would harm the patients.”

The Teacher Sets the Tone

While working in real-time simulation labs have allowed Poida to refine her practical skills, it is instructors like Schuh teaching her Lab Theory class that have made her education invaluable.  

“I think her enthusiasm and love to her job set her apart from other teachers,” says Poida. “She came to one of our lectures with an IV line attached to her hand in order to show and tell the students how to assess IV’s appropriately.”

Sandra Richardson-Bursey, a former Nurse Technologist who facilitated the simulation labs at Durham College agrees that Schuh’s hands-on approach reveals a dedication to quality.

Before their jobs in education, Schuh and Richardson-Bursey worked together for years in labour and delivery. According to Richardson-Bursey, a strong leader is always willing to consider the opinions of others, and create a comfortable and supportive environment: skills that she says Schuh has mastered.

“Deb is so dedicated and current and helpful, always making sure that what she teaches is accurate,and that she is aware of best practice,” says Richardson-Bursey. “She is an inclusive teacher both with students and facilitators, because she listens and is open to suggestions.”

Until last year, Schuh held on to her casual position at a local hospital, for both her love of bedside nursing, and her commitment to setting a strong example for her staff and students.

Schuh never thought she would be a teacher. But as a lover of both biology and people, she always knew she wanted to be a nurse. Her grocery list of experience in the health care system is evidence of a 16-year-long career in a field that she feels was made for her.

In classrooms and laboratories where health science and technology collide, Schuh says she is trying to raise the reputation of PSW’s from under appreciated menial workers, to rigorously trained and educated health care providers. In her opinion, “long term and community health care would crumble without them.”

“PSW’s are marginalized workers, but you don’t realize how important they are,” she says. “It’s so important for us as educators to build up their self-esteem and their status .”

Schuh’s greatest concern is that PSW’s are being undervalued: it’s an issue that she has devoted her career to changing. Schuh says that there is a consistent need for PSW’s, arguing that “they can get a job anywhere.” With an aging Canadian population, she says the demand will only become greater in the next decade.

Schuh advocates for quality PSW education because she believes in the power of thoroughly-trained workers in communities that need them. She may not be swaddling newborns or assisting in lifesaving anymore, but her excitement for teaching overflows in to her workplace. Succinct and effortlessly humble, Schuh puts it simply:

“I love teaching. I love the enthusiasm, the students, everything. It’s a passion for me.”