Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Nov. 10, 2022
Class of 2022: Nursing grad drawn to help the vulnerable and bring change to addictions and mental health research
With nearly 25,000 opioid-related deaths in Canada between 2016 and 2021 — and many more feared in the years ahead — researchers at the University of Calgary are exploring new ways to tackle this complex issue.
Amie Kerber, who will convocate this week with her Master of Nursing degree, is one of those researchers. Kerber is passionate about finding solutions to the crisis, and better supporting those who are living through it.
“I had an interest in mental health from the start,” says Kerber, who 10 years ago earned her Bachelor of Nursing with the Red Deer College/University of Alberta collaborative baccalaureate program. “When I got into nursing, it solidified that I was really interested in mental health and addictions. I learned of this concept of harm-reduction while I was in my second year of nursing.”
Harm-reduction is an evidence-based, client-centred approach to reducing the health and social dangers associated with substance addictions. The approach provides people a choice in how they minimize harms through non-judgmental, non-coercive programs and services that help them live safer and healthier lives.
Kerber dedicated her work to harm-reduction. In 2016, she moved from Red Deer to Calgary to pursue opportunities here and eventually pursue her master’s at UCalgary.
Turning a blind eye to the importance of opioid treatment programs
In 2018, Kerber was one of the first staff members in the Injectable Opiate Agonist Treatment program, now called Narcotic Transition Services. This is a clinic operated by Alberta Health Services that provides intensive care treatment to those affected by opioid use disorder (OUD). Services are currently provided in Calgary and Edmonton and will be available to more Albertan communities by the end of January 2023.
Prior to this, Kerber worked in inpatient psychiatry, short-stay psychiatry and crisis intervention, while seeing patients dealing with addiction and substance use.
“I think I've always been drawn to working with people who are vulnerable and who deserve care they might not otherwise think that they're deserving of,” she says. “The concept of harm-reduction really made sense with my values.
“Providing frontline care for clients who have OUD has been the most rewarding nursing role that I have had.”
This led to Kerber starting her master’s at UCalgary in 2019. Her thesis focused on exploring the role and experiences of registered nurses working across a variety of OUD treatment programs and services.
“We see really strong opinions guiding how (OUD) should be treated and opinions are not always driven by evidence, they're driven by values,” Kerber says, adding she found a disconnect between policymakers, high-level health-care leadership and evidence-based OUD treatment options.
“Nurses working in OUD treatment are committed to fostering transformative relationships with patients who have been marginalized by the health-care system; the results of my study really highlight and reinforce the important role they play in patient care,” she says.
Pausing studies after a devastating loss
In 2020, having already finished her course work, personal tragedy forced Kerber to put all that aside when her five-year-old daughter, Quinn, died unexpectedly. Kerber took a leave of absence for six months.
“My biggest worry with returning to my studies was feeling that my brain, still in the heaviness of grief, would not be able to function in the way I needed it to get the research done,” says Kerber. “I really had no capacity to focus on anything else just because I was trying to make it through each day. I have (another) younger daughter as well, so I was grieving and parenting at the same time.”
But it was never an option to not return and finish the degree.
“I felt like I had already done the hard stuff by completing all the course work, and the thesis felt like a culmination of that work put into action,” Kerber says. “At the end of the six months, I felt like I was ready to start adding those pieces back in.”
She credits her supervisor, Dr. Tam Truong Donnelly, PhD, a professor in the Faculty of Nursing, for her support throughout the entire program. “Especially after my return, she was supportive and encouraging, and her belief in me really helped me to find my footing again,” Kerber says.
Research and listening deepen understanding of people with addictions
“Addiction comes from trauma. We don't really want to acknowledge that,” Kerber says. “We think that people have chosen problematic substance use for themselves and that they’re willfully being what they're being. When we look a little bit deeper, we get to know people and listen to their stories without an agenda and understand that the human existence is a hard one.
“They deserve care, and they deserve to have their value understood, and they certainly do not deserve to die.”
On her journey to completing her master’s, Kerber has learned a lot about her own resilience in the face of adversity and trauma.
“I’m really proud of being a nurse,” she says. “When my daughter died, I lost so much of who I was as a person. I was worried that my love for being a nurse was gone with that. I wasn't sure that I'd be able to get that back. Completing my research and thesis was a lesson in learning how I can still love being a nurse, and how I can still stretch my brain in meaningful ways.”
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