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Nursing week: Dedication and empathy in a crisis

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Toronto Star, May 9, 2015

Nurse of the Year Sharon Lawlor faces difficult situations and makes tough decisions in her high-pressure role with the Toronto police Mobile Crisis Intervention Team

Crisis nurse Sharon Lawlor eased her car into the underground garage of the Toronto Police Service station, pulled on her bulletproof vest and hopped into Const. Brian Urquhart’s cruiser.

Crisis nurse Sharon Lawlor watches as a situation unfolds at a nursing home where a patient is readied for transport to hospital to undergo a mental-health evaluation.Lawlor and Urquhart scanned the day’s occurrences on a computer screen: a domestic assault, “suspicious behaviour,” dispute between a child and parents, and a call by someone to check on a missing family member. Their eyes then trained on a “Form 2” report involving a young woman who, despite her parents’ request, refused to admit herself to hospital for a psychiatric assessment.

Members of the Toronto Police Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCIT), the pair left for the woman’s west-end home with Lawlor checking on the woman’s police records to help the first-response police officers better deal with the situation.

“She has phobia leaving home,” said Lawlor. “We do the checks to find out what hospital she’s been, what support there’s for her, if there’s drug or alcohol involved. “We need to start our job before we get there.” Once they arrived, it didn’t take Lawlor long to convince the tall and very thin woman to get into a police cruiser and be escorted downtown to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

One situation resolved — and more to come.

Most days, Lawlor’s bosses don’t see her at all, or witness the tremendous work she does day in day out.

But her tireless dedication to her profession — and to people in mental-health crises — will be recognized when she is formally named Nurse of the Year in the 2015 Toronto Star Nightingale Awards. Lawlor and three honourable mentions will be presented with their awards during the Registered Nurses of Ontario Career Expo at the Toronto Hyatt Regency Hotel on May 15.

As a crisis nurse with the MCIT — a collaborative effort between hospitals and police to address mental-health issues in the community and prevent them from becoming volatile — Lawlor spends her days on the road in a police cruiser. It’s a high-pressure and unsettling job, filled with uncertainty.

“I have seen her talk individuals from balconies, bridges and rooftops, ones who were ready to step off to their death. They trusted her and she saved their lives,” said Kent Hagerman, a retired police officer who worked with Lawlor on the team for three years until his retirement from 14 Division.

“After literally saving someone’s life, she is humble and seeks no recognition for a task that people could seldom imagine experiencing, yet alone doing.”

“It’s a tough job. You treat them like they are one of your family members.” SHARON LAWLOR

From page N1 Hagerman, who nominated Lawlor for the award, said his former work partner has to deal with “all types of raw situations, potential danger and weather conditions.”

Crisis nurse Sharon Lawlor and Toronto police Const. Brian Urquhart wait to help transport a patient from a nursing home to hospital.“She is out there making the toughest decisions, to determine if a person has to be taken to hospital or if we are able to leave them, feeling content they will be safe in the community.”

Lawlor, who grew up in Brampton, said it was a serious case of appendicitis that put her in hospital and then at home for a month when she was13 that prompted her to pursue a nursing career.

The sudden illness not only made her realize the randomness and vulnerability of life, but also understanding her calling to become a nurse like those who cared for her.

“I was young and isolated. My family couldn’t be there all the time. But the nurses there always came to me and spoke to me to try to keep my spirits up. They gave me tremendous support during my ordeal,” recalled Lawlor, now 51.

“They were so motherly, washing my feet and doing all these extra things for me. They were just so generous.”

Once she turned 16, she applied and got a job as an aide to the kitchen and delivered meals to patients at then Peel Memorial Hospital, now part of the William Osler Health Centre. It was her way to get a foot in the door and work at a hospital. She studied to be a registered practical nurse and started her first job as a “float nurse” at the hospital.

It was the job that exposed her to, and sparked her interest, in mentalhealth care.

While other nurses did not relish being assigned to the psychiatry ward in the basement, Lawlor — who always had a thirst for knowledge — gladly accepted the challenge.

After a three-year stint at Peel Memorial, Lawlor moved on to Etobicoke General Hospital’s psychiatry unit. But she was baffled to see the same patients repeatedly returning to the hospital for want of support and resources to help their recovery in the community.

So, in 1991, she left hospital duties behind and used her nursing background to work in the community at crisis centres, psychiatric group homes, youth shelters and halfway houses, as well as five years in nurse management with the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“The psych unit was always busy. Every shift was completely different,” said Lawlor, who joined the MCIT teams based out of the St. Joseph’s Hospital and Toronto East General Hospital in 2008. “And I told myself, ‘This is where I want to be a nurse.’ ”

On this day, followed by a reporter and photographer, Lawlor and Urquhart responded to call after call, including a schizophrenic resident at a nursing home who threatened to harm herself, and a tenant in a mental-health shelter who had obvious signs of physical illness and was refusing all help.

“You have to be very patient dealing with someone in a crisis situation. It takes years for them (patients) to get to that level and you can’t expect them to get better in five minutes,” she said.

“You have to slow it down. It’s some graceful dance we do.”

Lawlor has done many “well-being checks” requested by concerned family and friends, and sometimes sadly found their loved ones after they “already completed suicide.” One time, she was grabbed and injured by a young girl who preferred being sent to jail than return to a group home.

“It’s a tough job. You treat them like they are one of your family members,” said Lawlor.

Hagerman said Lawlor leaves a legacy of empathy with all the people she meets, ranging from police, medical colleagues, families and friends of patients to, most of all, the patients whose lives she has worked so hard to help.

“She has taught me and my fellow police officers the understanding of mental illness, how to treat the mentally ill with dignity and respect, and treat them like they are one of your family members,” Hagerman said.

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