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Alumni Profile: JoAnne (Van Dyk) de Jager

By Sonya Jongsma Knauss

One word keeps coming up as JoAnne de Jager talks about her work as a nurse: "exciting." De Jager, who attended Dordt for two years before receiving her registered nursing diploma at a community college in Toronto and her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from the University of Alberta, has worked as a nurse for almost three decades. And it's evident in her voice that she still loves getting up every morning to do the work she has committed her life to.

"You can make such a significant difference in people's lives. It may sound trite," she notes, "but when you are working out your faith in a vocation that you really feel called to, that's a tremendous experience. People see that in you-the way you do your work, the way you approach your work…. Nursing is such an exciting career, and there are so many opportunities to be involved."

JoAnne de Jager

JoAnne de Jager

De Jager has worked in almost every area of the hospital since she began nursing. She has served as a pediatric nurse, a medical/surgical nurse, an emergency room (ER) nurse, a sexual assault nurse examiner for the city of Edmonton, a pneumonia care pathway coordinator, and most recently, as a SARS research coordinator in Toronto.

What did she like best? Everything had its advantages, but she speaks fondly of her twelve plus years in the ER.

"I loved the pace, I loved the challenges. You never knew what was coming through the door, and you had such an opportunity to make a difference in such a short window of time," de Jager says. She took courses each year so she could maintain the broad base of knowledge needed for ER nursing.

She relied on her faith to keep her grounded in an often chaotic environment. "When I was working, especially in emergency, I don't know how many times I prayed in the elevator going up, that the Lord would prepare me for the shift-that I could deal with whatever came in to the best of my ability. It is my faith but also having a positive outlook and a good sense of humor that allows me to deal with the stress. Otherwise it becomes too difficult."

How she does her work is indicative of her commitment.

"I think your heart has to be in it," she says. "You can teach anyone to come off the street to do the tasks that are involved in nursing. But there's so much more to nursing than that. You have to have a heart for the patients, a real love for the work you're doing, and put a diligent effort into doing your work well. As a registered nurse you must continuously expand your base of knowledge to keep current."

When de Jager and her family moved to Edmonton for her husband's job in 1999, she continued to work in the ER but was also asked to be a sexual assault nurse examiner for the city.

"I saw a real need for that type of program to be facilitated throughout the region, so I did that as well as my emergency nursing."

It wasn't long before the Lord opened another door, she says. "He kept putting people in my path." A clinical nurse educator in her department recommended that she apply for a job as a pneumonia pathway nurse, someone who would direct and coordinate the best possible care for pneumonia patients throughout the seven-hospital system administered by Capital Health, the umbrella organization she worked for.

"It was a wonderful opportunity because it combined patient care, administration, and education," de Jager says. She wrote a pneumonia pathway manual that was adopted by Capital Health and put into all of their hospitals for health care workers to follow. "A critical pathway," she explains, "is a series of steps for the management of an illness using research based on the best available medical evidence."

That research experience spurred her to apply for another research position, this time in Toronto after her husband, Jules ('74), became the Director of Elementary Education for the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools. She was hired the day she applied, in the spring of 2003, to be SARS research coordinator for Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

De Jager came on board near the end of the second wave of SARS in Toronto.

"It was such a challenging position, because as coordinator, if I would have one of the nurses on my team go to one hospital, she would not be allowed to go anywhere else," de Jager says. "If I would visit her, we had to stand out in the parking lot to speak, because if I went in, I would not be allowed to go back to my own office. One thing we all learned to do was wash our hands a lot."

She continues to enjoy the research aspect of her job. "It is exciting research in that it is very cutting edge, right here and now," de Jager says. She works with top scientists in the field. They are currently collecting information for a one-year study of SARS patients. The study has five components-diagnostic, clinical, immunology and genetics, epidemiology, and transmission modeling. De Jager coordinates the diagnostic and clinical aspects. In the diagnostic area, they are working to establish a rapid test to diagnose SARS. For the clinical part, they look at the clinical course of patients diagnosed with probable or suspected SARS and determine predictors of illness and disease outcome.

One element of the study looks at how patients have been psychologically affected by the SARS virus. "If you're sick, and you know your co-worker has died of SARS, wouldn't you question your own prognosis?" she asks. "[People who exposed] were isolated, then they were ostracized as well, even after they were discharged, because people were so afraid of having contact with them. We have some very heartbreaking stories, where one person was infected with SARS and then a loved one died because of it. They have to live with that."

"We follow them not only while they're in the hospital, but at three months, six months, and twelve months-so I still have patient contact," she says.

Still, her role as SARS research coordinator is much different than that of an ER nurse. She spends three days a week working out of her home office in Hamilton, and she commutes to Toronto to meet with patients the other two days.

"When patients come to the clinic, I'm wearing all these different hats. I sit there and listen to them, provide a sounding board for them-empathize with them. It's not what I'm DOING for them, it's not as active as in emergency, but you become silent and listen to them and you carry their burdens with them."

De Jager feels she has been reaffirmed throughout her nursing career that this is the role she's been called to, "either through patients, their families, cards they send… If you do your work with honesty and integrity, with a real desire to do it well, and show empathy and love to your patients, those all become very evident." She quotes from Cornelius Plantinga's "Engaging God's World" to explain her approach: "You don't always have to chop with the sword of truth; you can point with it too."

De Jager credits her experience as a student at Dordt College with affecting her thinking more than anything else. "It changed my way of thinking, my world and life view-that the Lord is sovereign over every part of your life, and he's interested in every part of your life. I think that how you work that out with your vocation is so important."

"I always felt that Dordt was very interested in the person that you are becoming-not just the kind of job you were going to get at the end, but genuinely interested in you while you were there…. It wasn't just which job I would do, but HOW I would do this work."

Jules and JoAnne (Van Dyk) de Jager have three children: Aaron is currently studying at Dordt College, Joanna is a Calvin graduate, and Yolisa is a Redeemer student.