The Trials And Tribulations Of Becoming An Emergency Room Nurse


For most people, the emergency room is a place to be avoided.

For Kelly Vondervoort, it was exactly where she wanted to be.

The McMaster University nursing graduate knew the ER was her calling based on the various placements she completed throughout her degree, but also knew she would be way more confident entering this department if she wasn’t doing it all on her own.

“Everyone always says the real learning in nursing starts once you get hired, and it’s so true.” —Kelly Vondervoort, RN

Luckily for her, she was the proud recipient of the Nursing Graduate Guarantee (NGG) – a government-sponsored program to help new Registered Nurses with their school-to-work transition – and was thus paired up with an experienced nurse for the first six months of her job.

“It was amazing,” Kelly said. “I wish more RNs could do the NGG. I started working on my own after that six-month period and felt so confident. The ER is just too specialized to do it on your own with no experience or time to adjust to the insane environment.”

I had the chance to sit down with Kelly in between her two night shifts, two day shifts and four days off schedule to give me the low-down on schooling, surgeries and life in the ER.

On program structure and placement periods

In the first year of McMaster’s nursing program there is no work placement, but the remaining three years of the degree have two placements with increasing hours each year. Fourth-year placements are almost like a full-time job.

Unlike many co-ops and internships, these placements didn’t involve any job interviews. In second-year, students like Kelly had their placements assigned to them, and the remaining two years used a lottery style. “They usually took about six students to each placement, so once that placement was full it was gone,” she says says. “In fourth year there is a massive focus on placement. Some people even approached areas they were hoping to work in after school and asked if they would take a student.”

Kelly found herself with a variety of placements, from orthopaedic surgical floors to maternity to the pediatric emergency department. In the end, however, Emerg was where Kelly found her calling.

On the dreaded Canadian Registered Nurse Exam (CRNE)

“Getting your BScN basically means nothing,” Kelly says. “It means you’re allowed to write your Canadian Registered Nurse Exam.”

This exam is extremely expensive to write, costing Kelly almost $1,000 by the end of it all. “There are prep books you can buy, which I did most of my studying from, and that all costs money,” she says. However, it paid off when she received a passing grade the first time she took the test.

While waiting for your results, you are allowed to apply for a Temporary RN License and work with that under the supervision of an experienced RN. Kelly did this and started her position in Emerg at the Woodstock General Hospital immediately following the end of school. As soon as her results came in, she upgraded to her Permanent Nursing License and found her career well underway.

The nursing interview process

Kelly found nursing interviews to be mostly experience-based and was asked questions such as, “Tell me about a specific time when…you helped a family member cope with the death of a loved one” or “…you showed initiative during a code blue situation.”

Having experience through her ER placements allowed Kelly to answer all these questions with ER-related answers that directly applied to job she would be doing.

That being said, she worked alongside another new grad in the ER who had no prior experience in that department and she is just as skilled in her position. “When it comes down to it, it’s all about the nurse you are and how well you can adapt to new situations,” Kelly says.

On life in the Emergency Room

“Everyone always says the real learning in nursing starts once you get hired, and it’s so true,” she says. “I feel fairly confident in my job these days, but I’ve learned that in this field, it takes a long time to become experienced and proficient in your job.”

Kelly says the most challenging days in the ER are, of course, the cases that tug at your heart strings. “To me, the worst part is hearing the screams of the families when they see their loved ones no longer alive,” she reflects. “No matter how many lives you see end, it never numbs the pain of hearing that.”

Plans for the future

“My long term goals are more in relation to my personal life and I know nursing will fit around them,” she says. Being such a flexible and “mom-friendly” profession allows Kelly to work her way up and gain seniority in the hospital so, when the time comes, she can hopefully settle into a more set schedule with weekends and evenings free.

Until then, she’ll keep those black-out curtains in tact so she can get some sleep after those long night shifts.

Healthcare Week on TalentEgg, presented by Northern Health and featuring Rexall and Alberta Health Services

Photo credit: Rob Nguyen