After six years of attempted wage freezes from the Ontario provincial government, Carrie Gerdes had enough. She led the charge to have the radiation department at the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton certified with PIPSC in 2012.
“From that moment, I’ve become more involved in labour activism and being involved in the union as a whole,” she says. “I’m proud to be a labour activist. Being part of a union means we have the power of a group to address the concerns of our profession.”
Things have been a lot better since they joined PIPSC, but she still finds her work challenging. Like many health care workers, her department is stretched, and is relying too heavily on temporary workers for her comfort.
“We have a large number of precarious workers in our department,” Carrie explains. “I bring a spotlight to what it does to a profession when people are living pay cheque to pay cheque and are uncertain about their future.”
What that means is that younger people entering the field aren’t able to qualify for mortgages or qualify for maternity leave. This uncertainty also impacts patients.
As a radiation therapist, Carrie’s work is largely about building strong relationships with patients undergoing treatment for cancer. She says it’s the best – and the hardest — part of her job.
“We’re here to provide emotional support for them as well as provide quality, compassionate care,” Carrie explains. “Radiation is a scary word for everyone. One of the greatest satisfactions we have is talking patients though exactly what we’re doing – from the CT scan to the daily treatment – alleviating all the fears that they have and continuing to build that relationship day after day.”
Most of the patients who come through the cancer centre are being treated for prostate and breast cancer, which often have good outcomes, but they also do pediatric care and treat brain tumours. On any given day, she’s doing CT scans, tattooing patients, educating them on their treatment plan and helping them deal with the often painful side effects of radiation. “Consider it the worst sunburn you’ve ever had,” she says.
Carrie is especially proud of the advances her team has been able to make in radiation treatment with the newest technology, “The cyber-knife machine has made it possible to avoid whole brain treatment.”
Radiation treatment is always an emotional journey for the patients, but also for those who are providing their care.
“One of the hardest parts is developing emotional connections without taking on the emotional consequences ourselves.”
But the hardest part is also the most rewarding part for Carrie. Unlike many other health care providers who see patients occasionally, Carrie sees the same people daily – often over holidays – which makes for strong bonds.
“We get to spend day after day with the same patients and counsel them through everything in the acute phase of their treatment. We become family."