Several of these students already work in the healthcare sector in other roles, and say they’ve seen firsthand the toll of dire nurse shortages, fuelled by burnout after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The evidence is in the number of walk-in clinics and hospital emergency rooms on the Island that have had to shut down, either temporarily or for good, due to a lack of enough staff to keep things running.
The students reached out to Capital Daily after reading this article about a practical nursing student who was dismissed from Sprott Shaw College because she decided to stay home while COVID-positive instead of attending the long term care facility where she was assigned to work.
Some of the former students quoted in this article have requested their names be changed to protect their future prospects at other nursing schools.
‘I was completely blindsided’
While attending the Practical Nursing diploma program at Sprott Shaw College, Ericah was also working as an escort and volunteering at Peers—a peer-run service network for sex workers in Victoria. This information, she says, wasn’t known by Sprott Shaw College until she decided to complain about her instructor to the administration.
According to Ericah, her instructor had sent her home that day for taking a blood pressure reading from a patient whose arm was supposed to undergo surgery in a few months. The safety recommendation was to not disturb that arm—something Ericah says neither her instructor, nor any of the attending nurses had told her.
“[My instructor] told me to tell the nurse what I had done, and the attending nurse [said], ‘Absolutely no big deal, it happens,’ adding that in her professional opinion it did not compromise the patient at all, and that both professional nurses and nursing students make little mistakes like this sometimes,” Ericah wrote in her letter explaining the incident to the Practical Nursing Program Coordinator, Linda Beth Greet, at Sprott Shaw College. “The nurse also said the patient should have said something to me and said sorry for not mentioning it to me at all either.”
A registered nurse who has been working in Island Health for five years after acquiring her nursing degree in Alberta spoke to us about each of the incidents the students described.
She spoke on condition of anonymity because Island Health does not permit nurses to speak to media.
In the case of the patient awaiting surgery, she says there should have been signage by the patient’s bed and in their chart to inform staff not to take a blood pressure reading.
“The other thing that’s raising an eyebrow is the instructor shouldn't have let that student take the blood pressure in the first place,” the nurse said. “If they knew that the patient was going to go for [a] procedure, they should have stopped them ahead of time [and] explained the rationale.”
Ericah did not receive a letter in response to her complaint against the instructor, but said administrators met with her in person and told her they would investigate the incident. After this investigation, she said the Nursing Program Coordinator, Greet, said to her, “We’ve found out a lot about you. We’re going to need some workplace references.”
Ericah provided the contact information of her colleagues at Peers, and after the reference check, was told by her colleagues that Greet had asked them “personal and very specific questions” about her vocation. The nurse we spoke with said in her experience it is not common for a nursing program to ask for workplace references after the student is already in the program.
Marina Bochar, who was an employee at Peers at the time, was one of two people on the receiving end of those calls, and says the questions were “probing,” and designed to trip her up. She was asked about Ericah’s employment history and how long she had worked at Peers, among other things. But Bochar’s initial answers were not enough.
“They asked a lot of follow up questions, as if they were hoping to catch me in a lie or get me to change my answers,” Bochar told Capital Daily. “Although I can’t be 100% sure what their intentions were, it definitely felt like they were trying to get me to out her as a sex worker.”
After that, Ericah says she was not allowed back into her clinical rotation, meaning she could not complete the semester and was forced to withdraw from the program altogether. She says she was never given a clear reason why. The practical nursing program is the most expensive education offered at Sprott Shaw, according to a 2022 pricing sheet.
“I paid $35,000 for an LPN nursing education that has not been updated in years, and to be bullied, harassed and discriminated against,” Ericah said.
Melissa Braithwaite was six months into Sprott Shaw’s LPN program, in the final clinical rotation of level one alongside Helen, about to move to level two of the program with the rest of the cohort.
One final step in that first part is a self-evaluation, which contains a list of skills that students are expected to mark either “complete,” “developing,” or “not met.”
Sprott Shaw’s student handbook describes what’s meant to happen next: “If a gap in knowledge is identified the issue is immediately addressed with the student… Should the issue be deemed serious the student may be asked to return to the campus to meet with the PN Coordinator and/or Director of the campus. During the student meeting the student will be placed on a Learning Contract. Here the issue is clearly identified and the student is informed of what specifically needs to happen in order for them to be successful.”
Braithwaite says she specifically asked her instructor whether students would fail the class if they reported that less than halfway through the program, some of their skills were still “developing.” She says the instructor said no, and Braithwaite answered the evaluation honestly, stating that many of her skills were still developing.
Braithewate received a dismissal letter from the college that stated she did not meet the competencies required for level one CPE.
“I spent days trying to contact the higher up administration as to what reasons,” she said. Over a week later, Braithwaite says she was told the dismissal was mainly because she had marked some of her skills as “developing.”
When she spoke to other Sprott Shaw LPN students who had been placed at a different facility for their clinical rotation, several of them told her they had passed despite having “developing” or “not met” skills on their evaluation.
She was also told her attendance was another factor in the dismissal.
“My apartment got broken into so I missed [clinical] that morning,” she said. “I also missed another half day because I took the wrong type of medication… and I felt like I couldn't be there and give the quality care that I needed to my patients, because I was absolutely sick to my stomach.”
Braithwaite says during the three weeks of her clinical rotation, there had never been any indication that she would be failing level one, either for performance, attendance, or any other reason. “I was completely blindsided.”
Several students like Braithwaite and Helen, having experienced private education and not willing to return, said they’re either considering or have already applied to Camosun College to complete their education.
However, three students who were supposed to graduate from Camosun’s 20-month Practical Nursing diploma program in May 2022 said they’ve had similar experiences during their time at the college.
All three students told Capital Daily that only nine LPN students graduated out of an original cohort of 32. A spokesperson for Camosun College differed on that point, saying there were 13 graduates out of a smaller class of 25 after “a number of students withdrew due to COVID-19 and other personal reasons.” No verification was provided by either group.
The statement from Camosun College noted that this year’s graduation rate was lower than usual. “Previously, graduation numbers were 21 in 2021, 27 in 2020 and 22 in 2019,” out of a cohort of up to 32, they wrote.
Elizabeth Gillespie had waited 20 years, until all four of her kids had finished high school, to restart her own career. She was accepted into the practical nursing program at Camosun College after spending three more years on the waitlist and working as a care aide in the meantime.
By June 2022, Gillespie’s transcript showed evidence of a near-perfect student: straight A’s, Dean’s Honour Roll, and a successful completion of every academic and practical requirement, except the very last one.
Gillespie was dismissed from Camosun during the final week of her six-week preceptorship, with just four 12-hour shifts scheduled before she could graduate.
It started because she made a mistake: she confused her patient with another nurse’s patient, and gave them the wrong medication. Gillespie says she realized the mistake a couple of hours later and immediately informed her superiors. Neither patient had any adverse effects.
“I own my error. It was my fault, my stupidity that did it,” Gillespie said, adding that in her years of working as a care aide, she had never made a misstep like that before. “But I'm pretty sure I would never do that again because I'm so heartsick over that.”
It’s a serious mistake, but one that happens to working nurses “all the time,” according to the nurse we spoke with “The best thing was that she reported it right away,” she said. “I think that shows accountability on her part.”
When Gillespie told the doctor in charge what happened, she says he immediately told her, “Don’t quit over this. Don’t get discouraged, we need nurses,” Gillespie recalled.
“I think those were the first words out of his mouth.”
But, because of this mistake, Gillespie was watched by her instructor as she performed her morning rounds and gave patients their medications the next day. The evaluation from this morning was, she says, the biggest factor in her dismissal.
“The actual drawing up—getting the pills in the right amounts…the mechanics of it were fine,” she said, adding that she had not made any errors during this time. “[The teacher] didn’t like how I was identifying the patient. Like when you’re told to do a certain number of checks and ask their name and date of birth to make sure it matches with what you have.”
Gillespie said the reason why she hadn’t followed exact procedures for some of her patients was because she’d been taking care of four out of five of them for the past two or three days in a row and was already familiar with their names.
The teacher, she says, also found other minor issues to note. For example, Gillespie asked a patient whether they’d taken their inhaler dose and the patient said yes, pointing to the inhaler in question on their bed. Though Gillespie took this as confirmation enough, she says the teacher took issue with the fact that she hadn’t physically picked up the inhaler to check whether it was the right one.
Over the course of that morning, Gillespie says the instructor picked apart her actions and, in the end, told her she was no longer authorised to give medication to patients for the remainder of her preceptorship. This meant Gillespie could not graduate.
“In some levels, I feel like it's just punishment for what I did,” she said. “But also I feel it's not in keeping with their philosophy that if you make a mistake, if you make good, that should be part of the learning process and not be grounds for dismissal.”
From a working nurse’s perspective, the registered nurse we spoke with understands why the instructor kept an eye on Gillespie the day after her mistake because a big incident like that can cause anyone to lose focus. But, she said, the instructor should have offered support rather than critique.
“Not all instructors are the same, some are more particular than others,” she said. “From my perspective, it seems like they were just being a little bit too critical.”
Kasia’s story is a similar one. (Kasia’s name has been changed.)
She was dismissed from Camosun’s LPN program in December 2021, a few months away from graduating, for making one mistake. Up until that point, she, like Gillespie, had straight A’s, was on the Dean’s Honour Roll, and had even received a scholarship for her good grades two days before she was dismissed.
But Kasia made a mistake during a skills demonstration—an hour-long test at the end of each semester. During a practice scenario, she accidentally contaminated the sterile field around a wound. Nurses taking care of a wound or prepping for surgery need to make sure they don’t come into contact with the sterile field around the area, Kasia explained, either with their bare hands or a gloved hand that is no longer considered “sterile” if it touches anything outside the sterile field. “If your pinkie grazes it and you don’t see, then it’s contaminated,” she said.
“They told me that all my demonstration was good, but because I contaminated my sterile field, that I was not a safe nurse,” Kasia said. “I've never had to redo a skill before in any of the other semesters.”
Kasia got a zero in the skills demonstration and thereby failed the class. Now, in order to finish her degree, she must wait for the next cohort in September. “I was in shock for maybe two weeks after that,” Kasia said.
Contaminating sterile field by accident is also a mistake that nurses make in the workplace, the nurse told us. When that happens, they have to get new supplies and restart the procedure.
“I don’t agree that that would be grounds for failing a student,” she said. “In the nursing world, this kind of stuff happens all the time. It’s not uncommon for sterile fields to be compromised.”
While going through the program, Kasia had the scholarship and financial support through a sponsorship, but will no longer have any of that when she goes back to finish the program in September.
“I have to take out student loans and be in debt,” she said. “I have to see a counsellor now. I just have so much anxiety and depression from this.”
Nursing scholarship has developed around the question of assigning blame and recognizing near-misses in recent decades. “[E]rrors are rarely the result of simple failures of healthcare professionals, but occur because of breakdown or fault in the complex delivery system that characterizes current healthcare,” reads a 2004 position paper in the journal Nursing Leadership, which calls for hospitals to adopt an “approach that moves away from a culture of blame towards one that stresses identification and correction of systems problems.”
These students’ experiences indicate that the culture of blame in the nursing industry may be persisting at school.
For some, dismissal from the program was not the only cause of mental health distress. In an email to the chair of Camosun’s Continuing Care department, Gillespie detailed how her instructor’s actions during her final clinical rotation impacted her own.
“I have always had a great respect for [this instructor], but at the same time she causes me extreme anxiety and stress,” Gillespie wrote. “I found the [practicum] I had under her to be the most extreme episode of stress I had ever felt, to the point of having an experience of out-of-body blanking out at one point. Something I have never had occur before.”
Gillespie was not alone in attributing her mental health decline to specific instructors within the practical nursing program.
Ingrid, a student who was in the same cohort, whose name is also being withheld, says she was bullied by an instructor and describes a “controlling, shaming, aggressive” teaching style that culminated in her being granted a medical withdrawal due to suicidal ideation.
Two years of ‘torture’
English is not Ingrid’s first language, but she’s well versed in nursing.
She studied to be a nurse for three years in her home country at a public university where, at the end of four years of schooling, students must work at a government-run facility for a year before they can graduate.
Ingrid had to forgo that final step because she was moving to Canada around the same time, after an eight-year-long immigration process. Though she had hoped the university credits from her home country would transfer over to Canada and allow her to be a nurse here, this was not the case.
In the end, she decided to apply for the Practical Nursing program at Camosun College because it had a shorter waitlist than UVic’s BSN program and would be less expensive. With English as her second language, she knew it wouldn’t be easy—but what she did not expect was targeted bullying from an instructor.
“This teacher that I got for my [last] clinical instructor, she wasn't even supposed to be my clinical instructor, but because Camosun is short of teachers, she was placed there,” Ingrid said. “She told us that she has a family and that she wasn't planning on having to be there with us. You could tell that she was stressed.”
She described how the teacher would ask rapid-fire questions and expect students to respond right away. Ingrid, who would take her time to process questions in her second language, says the instructor would accuse her of guessing at answers.
When she tried to bring up the language barrier, Ingrid says the instructor told her this was not an excuse because “you’re not the only person that doesn’t speak English as your first language.”
Ingrid also described how she developed an eating disorder because of the program.
“I got to this point where I was thinking, ‘I didn't do good in my clinical today,’ because my teacher told me—she made sure that I heard it in front of everybody else— ‘so I don't deserve to eat food today,’” she said.
Ingrid did approach her instructor to make her aware of her mental health distress and requested that the negative feedback be provided in private rather than in front of the rest of the cohort, but says the teacher was dismissive. “She would say, ‘Well that is on you, not on me,’” Ingrid said.
It came to a head in the final week of her last practicum, when Ingrid was told she would not be allowed to attend to any patients without supervision because she was deemed unsafe by the instructor. The teacher also noted that she would not be there to supervise her.
“I went home and I cried and I cried,” Ingrid said. “It was hours of me thinking, ‘This isn’t worth it, I’m stupid.’ It’d been two years of this torture. I started contemplating [suicide].”
Ingrid knew where the hunting guns were stored in the home she shared with her boyfriend, who was away, working that weekend.
“I know the number of the safe. I know how to use a gun. It’s easy,” she said. “I know it’s morbid to say but at that moment, that was the solution that I was giving to my problem.”
Fortunately, family members checked on Ingrid just in time to prevent the worst. After a long talk with her boyfriend and family members, she decided to request—and was granted—a medical withdrawal from Camosun College.
Both Sprott Shaw and Camosun College representatives said they could not answer questions about specific cases or allegations due to privacy concerns. However both stated that they have dispute resolution processes in place, should a student have complaints.
“Matters related to student fails are heavily regulated, and Sprott Shaw has a detailed, multi-layered, and robust dispute resolution process,” wrote Deej James, Vice President of Operations at Sprott Shaw College. “This process has proven to be extremely effective, with the vast majority of concerns resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”
Neither Ericah, nor Braithwaite have indicated they were satisfied with the dispute resolution process at Sprott Shaw College.
“I never got a response back to my official letter of dispute, but they brought me in so I could ask my questions,” Braithwaite said. At this meeting, she says administrators told her how to file a dispute—something she had already done, to no avail.
The spokesperson for Camosun College pointed to the institution’s appeals policy and student complaint review process, both available on their website, as recourse for students.
“No student would be failed for a minor infraction,” reads the statement. “If a student makes errors that result in it being impossible to pass, they can re-enter the program. All students who are unsuccessful are given information on the appeal process.”
Though the statement encourages students to speak up and report their concerns, Ingrid says the experience of doing so was hostile.
In February, Ingrid set up a meeting with the Chair of the Continuing Care Department in the School of Health and Human Services to discuss the fact that her attempts to communicate with her instructor had failed.
“[The chair] was very defensive,” Ingrid said. At the meeting, Ingrid was told that the chair had already spoken with the instructor. “[The instructor is] the authority and if you're here to complain about her, I can't help you,” Ingrid says she was told.
“The very sad part is that I didn’t feel like I got any help when I tried to communicate to my teachers that I needed help,” Ingrid said.
Gillespie also faced bureaucratic barriers when trying to complain about her situation.
After she was forced to withdraw from the program with just four shifts left to go, Gillespie contacted several people—the chair of the Continuing Care department in the School of Health and Human Services, the Ombudsman, the BC College of Nurses and Midwives—in her attempts to get the administration to reverse the decision.
In the end, she was sent a link to an appeal process that Gillespie did not pursue, after conversations with administrators which revealed that no changes would be made anyway.
These internal complaint and appeals processes within institutions seem to be the only recourse for practical nursing students who feel they were targeted or that outright dismissal was an overreaction.
Both the BC College of Nurses and Midwives and the BC Ministry of Advanced Education said they don’t intervene in matters of course instruction and conflict resolution. While the former would not comment on whether they’d received any formal complaints about either institution, a spokesperson for the ministry said they have received one formal complaint from a student about the practical nursing program at Sprott Shaw College to date.
Despite the financial and mental health toll, all five students are continuing their nursing education, whether at Camosun College or elsewhere.
“I don't like to give up,” Gillespie said. “I do want to get my practical nursing [diploma] and I'll do it however I can.”
If you're suffering from suicidal thoughts, help is available from the BC Crisis Centre at 1-800-784-2433