A heart for healthcare excellence: Award-winning cardiology nurse practitioner and BCIT alumna Sarah Waters puts patients first

When Sarah Waters was just 19 years old, she had the biggest event of her life. After an unexpected health emergency sent the BCIT alumna to surgery at St. Paul’s Hospital, she had a light-bulb moment while recovering in nursing care.

“I thought, ‘I could do that’,” she recalls, and, just like that, her nursing career was sparked, lighting a path that would lead not only to industry recognition, but also to improved outcomes for the countless patients for whom she would care in the years to come.

Caring for patients, improving health care

Today, Sarah is a celebrated nurse practitioner, having been named a 2018 recipient of The Great 100 Nurses in North Carolina award. This prestigious award recognizes registered nurses for outstanding professional abilities and commitment to improving health care in their communities.

Working as a heart failure nurse practitioner in the cardiology division at UNC Health (affiliated with the University of North Carolina School of Medicine), Sarah cares for patients who have experienced heart failure, which occurs if a weakened or damaged heart can’t pump enough blood, in turn causing other health problems.

“A lot of my patients need transplants or mechanical heart pumps,” she explains. “Educating patients on what the diagnosis means and the lifestyle changes they’ll have to make to prevent re-admission is a big part of the job. I love teaching patients to take care of themselves—giving them that education is empowering.”

Sarah says one of her patients often refers to her as “Dr. Waters,” to which she always responds with a laugh, saying, “I’m not a doctor.” Her patient insists with, “I know, but you’re my doctor, you’re a doctor to me.”

That, she says, is really special: “I take that home with me on the tough days, and I really try to do the best I can for every patient.”

Thriving at BCIT and beyond

Sarah grew up in Kaslo, BC, population: 968. When she first moved to Vancouver, she had enrolled in a university program. She quickly realized it wasn’t for her.

“It was way too big,” she says, explaining some of her classes had over 400 students. “It was a little overwhelming, so I didn’t thrive.”

Instead, she applied to and was accepted into the Nursing program at BCIT.

She says it was the practical applications and clinical hours that drew her in. Plus, BCIT reminded her of the close-knit community she was used to back in Kaslo: “I really appreciated having smaller classes. Even the work groups allowed everyone to give their input.”

The problem-based learning model at BCIT was also a big advantage, particularly the curriculum’s focus on diversity, Sarah says. It started with a patient and a case, showing the different aspects of the patient, including their background, ethnicity, and how that might affect their healthcare.

“I absolutely loved the program, and that just cemented for me that this is what I should be doing,” Sarah enthuses.

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Clinical hours, applied aspects of program are keys to success

After completing her practicum, which included rotations at Burnaby General, Lions Gate, and Riverview Hospitals, Sarah graduated from the Nursing program at BCIT in 2003. Soon after, she located the exact RN job she wanted—at UNC Health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Despite the fact that she had dual citizenship (both her parents are American), “I had no idea where North Carolina even was when I moved here,” she laughs.

Sarah credits the applied aspects of a BCIT nursing education with setting her apart in the workplace at UNC Health.

“If you’re a new nurse, it takes at least a year to become familiar with being a nurse and to feel remotely comfortable,” she says. “Coming out of BCIT, that timeline decreased for me because of how much clinical time you get before you even graduate.”

Recently, Sarah says her mom found an old Grade 1 assignment that asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“Apparently I said ‘a nurse’,” she says. “Which I don’t really remember. I actually wanted to be a doctor but the career path I’ve chosen is a thousand times better.”

Learn more about the BCIT School of Health Sciences and the Nursing program.

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