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Nurse Practitioner making herself at home on Bowen

Laura FitzGerald has joined the growing team of health care providers on the island
Laura FitzGerald is the nurse practitioner at Bowen Island Community Health Centre.

Bowen Island patients have a new face to look to for their health care needs following the recent arrival of Laura FitzGerald, a family nurse practitioner.

FitzGerald is part of the care team at the new Bowen Island Community Health Centre, starting her role on the island six months ago. While originally from Ontario, the move to Bowen was a homecoming of sorts for Laura. She grew up in West Vancouver and went to high school with many Bowen students who made the ferry commute to West Vancouver Secondary School – several of whom still live on the island today.

Laura’s own journey in health care began early, which she credits to inspiration from her parents, her father a respiratory physician and mother a physiotherapist (a position she still holds to this day). “They both loved their work and that ability to care for people and make a difference. I saw that satisfaction and it really was an impetus for me to study to be a registered nurse,” says FitzGerald.

After graduating as a registered nurse (RN) Laura spent a year at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver working in acute medicine before making the decision to pursue pediatrics. This meant a move to BC Children’s Hospital and a role with the nurse resource team, a job which took her through the ER, ICU, in and outpatient units, and many other wings of the hospital.

With several years of experience behind her FitzGerald made the decision to return to school to become a nurse practitioner (NP), earning a Masters in Nursing from the University of British Columbia in 2016. FitzGerald’s focus was family medicine, attracting her due to its focus on building long-term connections with her patients – “from zero to 100” she says, and sometimes beyond. “I really love that ability to care for people throughout their age continuum and see people throughout their lifespan.”

“The nurse practitioner role blends both nursing as well as medicine, which are very complimentary in nature. My hope and goal as an NP is to help patients achieve optimal wellness and minimize the burden of chronic disease,” she adds.

Laura’s path next led her to Kamloops and a job with Interior Health working in Indigenous primary care. While mainly based on-reserve at Tk’emlúps First Nation, Laura also travelled to other clinics throughout the Secwépcemc Nations, including Bonaparte First Nation near Cache Creek. FitzGerald’s team included herself and a family doctor as the primary care component, along with several other health care professionals such as dentists, counsellors, dieticians, and social navigators. “It was really wonderful to see team-based care in action and to see its benefit,” she says of the group’s work.

“Building trust was a huge component of the care that I provided,” says FitzGerald, explaining one of her motivators for pursuing work with First Nations groups is a passion for health equity. She notes the historical obstacles and prejudices which have long prevented many Indigenous people from accessing proper health care, with many of her own patients themselves survivors of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“I was humbled to hear their survivorship stories and build that trust,” says FitzGerald. “There was a lot of satisfaction in being able to provide that care, and bridge care to specialists if needed.”

Laura also assisted with wildfire evacuation care during consecutive summers when people would arrive in Kamloops after being forced to flee their homes. Without access to their usual care providers, FitzGerald and others would step in to help the displaced evacuees with any medical needs until they could go home.

“It was very rewarding work and my first taste of rural healthcare,” she says of her entire Kamloops experience.

It was back in 2018 during a visit home that the prospect of coming to Bowen Island first landed on Laura’s radar. During a trip to her dentist in fact, who happened to be Bowen resident Dr. Peter Kearney. He mentioned that the island was going to be building a health centre and would need a nurse practitioner. Though the opening date was still years away, Laura said the seed had been planted which would one day grow into an island move.

In the meantime FitzGerald had moved back to Vancouver and was working at Lu’ma Medical Centre, continuing her work in Indigenous primary care. When Bowen’s health centre broke ground in 2021 her interest in the new venture was renewed. And when Laura reached out to the board early the next year, her conversations with executive director Suzanne Saatchi and then-board member Dr. Lloyd Purdy convinced her there was a home for a nurse practitioner at the centre.

“I really loved the Allied Health component and that there was going to be a team-based care approach, which is what I’ve worked with and seen the advantage of in the Interior,” she explained, the health centre combining family doctors, nurse practitioners, and other medical specialists.

“That impact, and the ability to provide health promotion as well as preventative care, it’s a beautiful thing,” says FitzGerald. “It’s not always reactive care, you’re able to create change in people’s health habits – more of a preventative care approach, which nurse practitioners really embody, as well as family doctors.”

Professionally the move was the perfect fit, and personally too – Laura and her husband Stefan had recently welcomed their first child and were looking for a smaller community to call home. The family moved to Bowen in 2022, and Laura, having continued her work in Vancouver in the meantime, finally began with the health centre in October last year.

One of FitzGerald’s biggest goals in her new role is to show people the full range of care a nurse practitioner can provide. “I think a big question is, can a nurse practitioner be my autonomous primary care provider? Which is a fair question. I hope I can instill faith that nurse practitioners are able to be a person’s primary care anchor, and I’m able to provide full spectrum care similar to a family doctor,” says FitzGerald.

“We have different pathways to get to our education and goals, but we do follow the same guidelines. I’m trained in a biomedical model where I focus on both preventative care as well as acute care, so seeing people through chronic disease and episodic health challenges,” she explains. Laura says so far it’s been a mix of whether people are familiar with her position or not, but finds they’re very receptive once she explains the job of an NP.

Laura has wasted no time involving herself in the community either, already taking part in a Bard on the Rock production of A Winter’s Tale, making use of a Neighbourhood Small Grant to bring a smile to a sad bus shelter, or holding serve at the Tunstall Bay tennis courts. “It’s a beautiful community to be a part of,” says Laura. “I’m looking forward to being on Bowen long-term.”