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COLUMN: Nursing in the time of climate change

Nelson’s Judith Fearing writes about how wild fires impact her clients
Judith Fearing is a registered nurse in Nelson. Photo: Submitted

Second in a series of columns on climate change by local health employees. Read the first one here.

I first moved to the Kootenays in 1985 with my partner and first child. After leaving a few times for work we finally settled here in 1993 with two more children because we love it. Now I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in my life and I plan to stay for the rest of my life. At least I hope I can…

Several months ago a friend said, “I’ve heard several people talk seriously about permanently relocating, the wildfire smoke is making their breathing difficult, they’re spending more time indoors and they can’t stand the heat. They’re looking for more ‘habitable’ places in Canada.”

Really? This beautiful place I call home? It felt like a gut punch.

I love the summers here and always looked forward to them. With my kids, we enjoyed swimming, camping and hiking. It was exhilarating and revitalizing. Now I am dreading the extreme heat and smoke we will likely experience. Waking and not being able to see Pulpit Rock, my hiking refuge, made me feel afraid last summer. I worried about the lack of rain and unrelenting heat. What can I do to make sure this doesn’t get worse?

“My parents are unable to come to help due to the COVID travel restrictions,” said one of the new moms at the clinic I run, when I asked if they had any help at home.

We used to meet in groups where new parents could share their experiences gaining comfort and confidence together. But these have been cancelled, and in my practice as a breastfeeding and postpartum support nurseI now see parents and babies for individual appointments only. Many are anxious, lonely and sometimes depressed. I’m sad, frustrated and angry that they are having such a difficult, lonely and isolating time.

Last spring as people looked forward to being able to go outside and meet friends – a safer alternative during COVID – the wildfire smoke and extreme heat started. Common concerns from new mothers included “Is it dangerous to bring my baby outside? How will it affect her lungs?It is so hot, how can I keep my baby cool?”

Some, who had the means and a place to stay, left for the coast where the air tended to be less polluted and it was a bit cooler by the ocean.

In my work I am always interested in health promotion and understanding the underlying causes of poor health. Climate change overlies all of this – it will make everything so much worse, and cause so much more suffering, especially for those most vulnerable.

The Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment says, “Health emergencies cannot be considered in isolation. The flooding, the fires, the pandemic and climate change, these are all connected. The climate actions we take now will both reduce the impacts of the current pandemic and better prepare us for future global health emergencies.”

I feel compelled to work for climate action — it’s my new passion. But this was not the original plan for my retirement years. I had planned to travel and volunteer in other countries. Now, I feel a responsibility as a health care professional to use my voice and time for action on the climate emergency for my family, for my client moms and their babies who will be most affected by climate change, and the planet.

Raising my children with the support of family and friends, I found sharing the experience with others made it less stressful and more enjoyable. This is echoed by families I meet – they long to be together with other new parents.

Similarly, when I work with others to make sure we hold our governments accountable to take more climate action, I don’t feel so alone. I feel hopeful and energized. It is an important antidote to anxiety and depression.

There are many climate groups in the Kootenays – contact the West Kootenay EcoSociety or the West Kootenay Climate Hub to find a list of them and connect with a group that resonates with you.

I’m heartened and inspired by Canadian-born climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe’s words, “Don’t look for hope. Get active. Hope is everywhere.”

Judith Fearing is a registered nurse in Nelson.