In this award-winning essay, an international student shares her Halifax experience
By Yanni Wang
I am a firm believer that a part of your personality is shaped by the cities you live in. Having moved around all my life, few of the cities I’ve lived in made my itchy feet truly rest or became my guiding star. Only Halifax happens to be that special one.
Now in my second year of nursing at Dalhousie University, I’m happily learning and discovering more than ever about myself and this city.
I often recall myself standing in front of a purple house on Bauer Street, holding two ginormous suitcases and ringing the doorbell of my Airbnb host. Despite living alone since age 15, I was overwhelmed by feelings of angst and cluelessness. After a while without an answer, I called my host. From the other side of the phone came the laid-back voice of Dan. He told me to find the key under the doormat and that he was still in Prince Edward Island. That was how I checked in to my first temporary home in Halifax.
It was the end of August 2015. When I took my first walk around the city, the descending slope at the end of Bauer Street near Citadel Hill led me to the water. Born in the mountainous region of Southwest China, I have always reveled in the idea of living near the ocean. I clearly remember the feelings of bliss as the blue sky, sparkling water, and serene harbour of Halifax soothed my fluttering heart.
My first week in Halifax was dedicated to preparing for the start of nursing school. I was required to have a few immunizations and a first-aid course.
Travelling around the city knowing I was absolutely alone was intimidating. I remember sitting alone at the clinic, having three injections done in one sitting, getting a lower-than-average score in my first-aid course despite trying hard, waiting for a late bus and then realizing it was running in the opposite direction.
Although my hope, excitement and curiosity often made my fear negligible, sometimes it got the better of me.
Nevertheless, I knew the only way I could find the solution would be by confronting the obstacle instead of dodging it. With my voice trembling and hands shaky, I forced myself out of my comfort zone in order to communicate with my instructor and classmates in the first-aid course. Even though there were some days when my English didn’t function properly, I made sure I understood the material through repetitively asking for help.
Eventually I easily passed the course with a thorough understanding of first-aid skills. It came to my realization that while dealing with dilemmas in life, the right path is often not the easiest. It’s through experiencing and confronting pain that you grow up.
I never had to toughen up back home; it’s so real here in Halifax. Being weak isn’t an option. I sometimes had to be a big baby and cry a few times during a shower in order to accept the reality.
With the fall term approaching, I moved into school residence. I had my own room, but shared a bathroom with someone. That was where I met Alex. In our shared bathroom, she was leaning on the doorframe, smiling, her long, blonde, fuzzy hair falling on her chest and her hand ready for a handshake.
Ever since then, this amazing friend has expressed tremendous empathy toward an international student. We became good friends and still live together today. Besides, in any difficult circumstances, be they academic or life-related, my friends in nursing support me all the way through.
Being a hardcore nerd, I’m socially awkward and enjoy either solitude or being with close friends. I was insecure about not being a cool kid at first. These friends of mine not only made me feel at home in this strange country, but also endowed me with the courage to be myself. True friendships don’t arise because of how popular you are, but because of how genuine you are.
During my first year, the majority of my spare time was devoted to my academic work. Now I’m almost 20 and still grateful for my 18-year-old self being so diligent. I ended up having phenomenal grades.
Nursing students at Dalhousie we have an annual mandatory clinical placement every summer. The mere idea of clinicals was mind-boggling. I hadn’t even been to a Canadian hospital yet, not to mention being there as a student nurse performing care procedures. Little did I know the experience would not only blow my mind, but also become a turning point in my life.
I was luckily dispatched to a Victoria General Hospital transitions unit with five other fellow students and a peer mentor. Due to our limited knowledge foundation, the tasks we were allowed to undertake included giving bed baths, changing pads and ostomy pouches, and helping with meals.
Despite the limited scope of practice, the exposure was incredible. It’s said the first life you save will be your own. I didn’t save anyone, but I do hope I played a role in improving the quality of life for my patients.
The memory of my first patient is forever branded on my heart. He was in his late 80s with functional decline, Alzheimer’s, and depression. He told me about his life in the military, his beloved wife who passed away three years ago and how he didn’t have a sense of belonging anymore. The hardest part for me was that he would become teary from time to time. While I sat there and listened to him, I had to control my own tears. The only thing I could do was recognize his emotions, empathizing and consolling without false assurance.
There was also a lady who was delusional and prone to hallucinations. She had a doll she thought was her baby daughter. It was hard for me at first to see these patients’ lives wrecked by age or disease. I considered my patients as powerful individuals, but my excessive sympathy for their situations was such that I could hardly react properly sometimes.
I talked with my clinical friends about my uneasiness. One of my friends suggested that as an inexperienced student, my conception of being old and having illness wasn’t wrong, but may not be the best for my profession. Over the course of three weeks, my idea about aging and illness changed drastically.
I now consider aging and illness as unpreventable physiological processes. While this may affect them, it doesn’t define the individual. Proper treatment and coping strategies can be implemented to enhance their quality of life. This positive change has prompted me to become a better caregiver for my patients.
Another lesson I learned during my clinical was the unpredictability of life. In my first week, I helped to feed a patient. He had lost his speech and motor control due to a previous stroke, but other than that, he seemed to function well. His health deteriorated dramatically in a few days. He was switched to palliative care during my third week of clinical. I was in shock about how quickly things could change.
I remember sitting with him in his room in my spare time when he had no visitors. Knowing he was a father and a husband, it was hard for me to picture what it would be like for his family. At the same time, the thought this could happen to my own family someday sickened me.
While I was a thousand miles away from home, I grasped the significance of prioritizing your loved ones before anything else, because you don’t know when life will take them away from you. As I became more experienced, I grew stronger both mentally and physically. After these three weeks, I was sure, more than ever, that I was going to be a nurse someday.
It was the beginning of June when the year finally wrapped up. Having heard so much about the beautiful Nova Scotian summer, I decided to stay in “Halifornia”. This decision was also due to the high cost of plane tickets to travel back home. Growing up in a single-parent household, my mum alone has been supporting my education. Since tuition seemed to never stop hiking upward, I looked for a job to ease her load.
Unfortunately, the site of my clinical placement wasn’t hiring at the time. After dropping resumes at a bunch of places, I got a job as a patient sitter for Bayshore Home Health. My main responsibility was to go to hospitals in Halifax and sit with patients who need extra monitoring. All the shifts were 12 hours, day or night. It isn’t exactly an easy job, but the shifts were quite flexible. The schedulers called me at the start of each week and arranged shifts based on my free time.
Patients who need a sitter can be emotional and aggressive. I got called every name in the book. I did a night shift at Dartmouth General Hospital where my patient, who just broke his hip, was in the emergency department. The pain was so overwhelming he started to experience delirium. He was verbally abusive and tried to pull out his catheter and IV all the time. It was such a tough night that I collapsed on my bed as soon as I got home the next morning.
It wasn’t always tough, though. There was an amusing gentleman I encountered at the Halifax Infirmary. He began to sing old country songs a few hours after I arrived until the end of my shift. Singing with his eyes closed, he was completely immersed in joy.
Initially I thought his singing was going to end soon. After half an hour of singing along with him and applauding him, I realized he wasn’t planning to stop. I was happily exhausted by the end of the day. I genuinely liked this job as it added to my experience and clinical exposure. Sadly, I had to stop for a while when the busy school year started.
Besides working, I indulged myself in trying different restaurants around town and going camping with friends during the summer. My job, my friends, and the beautiful scenery altogether made the past summer an unforgettable experience.
I’m no longer the nervous girl with two giant suitcases waiting for her Airbnb host.
Words can’t describe my gratitude to this city, where my youth has bloomed. Halifax is where my dream started, where a Chinese girl travelled the world to find herself and where I found the courage to suffer through whatever comes my way, because my purpose and cause in life is greater than myself.