Diane Shanks to receive Friend of Health Sciences Award for 2016

Over the course of her 35-year nursing career, Diane Shanks (BN ’84) has been witness to an evolution in health care. From being on the frontlines of emergency care, to managing the emergency department, to her current position as a clinical care director responsible for the emergency department, the intensive care unit (ICU), in-patient medicine, cardio-respiratory services, stroke services, trauma services and bed utilization, she has seen it all.

“One of the great things about nursing is that there are so many opportunities for you in your career, from the various clinical areas you can work in, as well as the variety of roles that you can fulfil,” says Shanks. “It’s been a wonderful career for me so far. From my interest in the emergency health system, I’ve had the opportunity to see so much of the evolution of that system within southern Alberta.”

She has experienced emergency medicine and nursing become specialties of practice and has seen how technology developments have changed health care. Shanks has been part of the many transitions and changes in Alberta’s health-care system, going from local hospital and public health boards to regional systems and, most recently, to a single provincial health authority. These changes have created many challenges for the health-care team and certainly influenced how the system has evolved to support the delivery of health services in communities. Being in a nursing leadership role during these change, she admits her job can be stressful at times, but she has appreciated the opportunity to be involved and the many challenges each day brings.

For her remarkable and inspirational commitment to registered nursing and nursing leadership and education, the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Lethbridge has chosen Shanks as the recipient of this year’s Friend of Health Sciences Award.

“Diane is a nursing leader of unflinching integrity and she isn’t afraid to put provocative ideas on the table or name the elephant in the room, especially if that elephant is getting in the way of what’s best for patients and families,” says Dr. Shannon Spenceley, a U of L nursing professor, immediate past-president of the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta and a member of the award selection committee.

“I was completely floored,” says Shanks, recalling her reaction when she learned the news. “I was surprised but very honoured that they would consider me for this award and recognition. I was born and raised in Lethbridge and received all of my education in Lethbridge so it’s very meaningful to be recognized by my local community. Also, because it’s the centennial year for nursing in Alberta, it is especially exciting to be a registered nurse and recognized this year.”

Shanks graduated from Lethbridge College in 1981, the bearer of a nursing diploma. She followed in the footsteps of her mother and aunt in choosing nursing as a career. Her mother was part of the first graduating class from the St. Michael’s School of Nursing.

“I grew up around nurses. My mother worked in the operating room at St. Michael’s and later, she was the head nurse of the operating room before she passed away. I was always interested in what she did during her day. I was also able to get cool things for show and tell, like someone’s appendix and one of the bones from the middle ear. I was interested in that kind of stuff,” she says. “Their nursing group would have staff meetings at our house so I got to know many of them very well and have kept in touch with several over the years, both through my work and outside of work.”

As a result, Shanks says she knew early on she was going to become a nurse. After completing her diploma, she spent a year working at the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton before returning to Lethbridge to work on a bachelor of nursing degree at the U of L. Thinking a degree would enhance her nursing skills and possibly provide opportunities for her nursing career in the future, she enrolled and completed the degree in 1984. After nursing in emergency for five years, she became manager of the department.

“My true love is the emergency health system; that was my area of interest very early on in my career as a registered nurse. In fact, on retirement, that would be an area that would easily draw me back to do some frontline clinical work,” she says.

The diversity of patients from all age groups and clinical areas, from broken bones to heart attacks, appealed to her and she relished the fast pace and physical and mental demands of emergency nursing.

“I liked the teamwork. You learn to work very well together and rely on one another in a varied and fast-paced environment. You also work and interact with many disciplines and a wide variety of services and physician groups. It was different every day,” she says. “I most enjoyed working with the patients and the families. They come in when an unexpected illness or event has happened and they are vulnerable, so you can really make a difference for people at that time in their life, and you’re privileged to be part of that.”

After a few years, as the system grew and regionalization occurred, Shanks took on responsibility for emergency programs across the Chinook Health Region, from Taber to Crowsnest Pass. ICU was added to her portfolio. When the health regions were dissolved in favour of a provincial health authority, programs became site-based and additional portfolios were added to Shanks’ responsibilities.

“When I look back on all we have done through the years and where we are today, I’d like to think that we have improved our health system and health care and that I have played some part in that. I’m certainly not the type of person who shies away from challenges or from change and I believe we need to continually reflect on what we are doing, and change and evolve appropriately to improve. And I’ve certainly learned, through 25 years of management, many strategies to help with my communication and how to influence change, and motivate and mentor staff,” she says.

Rather than tell people what to do, Shanks prefers to model behaviour, set expectations, support and work with her team and empower people so they want to do the right things for the right reasons.

“I would like to think I’ve mentored a lot of leaders in our system today. To me, that’s the big reward, that I’m supporting them in what they want to do and preparing them for informing and influencing our health-care system in the future,” says Shanks.

Being responsible for clinical operations and providing administrative oversight for all of the areas under her purview have exposed Shanks to a variety of opportunities to lead projects and chair committees. While those roles have further distanced her from the frontlines of care, she’s purposefully stayed in the role of clinical director to prevent being totally removed from bedside care and to ensure she stays connected with staff, patients and families. Being closer to the frontlines and involved in day-to-day operations helps her, as clinical care director, support quality care and services.

“Diane has left her mark on emergency nursing practice in Alberta, not only as a clinician, but as a manager, a senior leader and finally as a remarkable role model for many of our NESA (Nursing Education in Southwestern Alberta) students. She is richly deserving of this honour,” says Spenceley.