May 5, 2022

How singing Christmas carols with a patient changed a nurse’s career forever

Mental health nursing truly a calling for alumna Amanda Habiak, a mental health consultant with UCalgary Staff Wellness
Amanda Habiak with husband Nikolas and sons Archer [4] and Nash [2]
Amanda Habiak with husband Nikolas and sons Archer, 4, and Nash, 2. Courtesy of Amanda Habiak

It was close to Christmas and Amanda Habiak, BN’09, was working her night shift as a RN on the intensive palliative care unit at Foothills Hospital. In a few moments spent with a terminally ill man, one who many thought was challenging, she says, her perception of what it meant to be a nurse changed and set her on the path to a career in mental health.

“You truly never know what moment is going to spark something within you,” says Habiak, mental health consultant with UCalgary Staff Wellness, about the experience. 

“I noticed him staring intently out of the large windows at the Christmas lights. It would have been easy to walk on by, but I stopped and asked simply, How you are tonight? He had no one to visit him this holiday, which would likely be his last, he said. I asked if I could sit for a bit and while singing in public is way outside my comfort zone, we sang Christmas carols, just the two of us.”  

There was nothing medically focused about the interaction, but where the power and beauty lay was in the connection. The energy from that is that same energy that courses through me now. It is why I love being a mental health nurse.

Habiak explains that it was a combination of work experience and her changing perceptions of what registered nurses really do as well as self-exploration that led to her to this area of nursing.

I’ll be fully transparent: Mental health nursing was not something I was passionate about at university. My impression of what an RN did and where they worked  acute care, bedside, urban hospital settings  were strong drivers to what I thought was my calling to this profession upon graduating. So I sought out opportunities (medical/surgical acute care, public health) that I thought aligned with that.  

Habiak admits questioning her suitability to mental health nursing  comparing herself to her classmates, self-stigmatizing  before coming to the realization she was not the elementary school girl who was told she was “too introverted, too shy, too quiet, too anxious.”  

Amanda Habiak at Machu Picchu during her South American trip.

Amanda Habiak at Machu Picchu during her South American trip.

Courtesy of Amanda Habiak

“I was certain that, after four years of very hard work and study, I would feel a spark for a certain area like my classmates,she continues. When that spark didn’t materialize, she took three months to travel with a fellow UCalgary Nursing graduate around South and Central America and gained some insight into where she wanted to “shine her light” when she returned to Calgary. 

Through recommendation from a helpful peer, she joined the paediatric mental health unit at Alberta Children’s Hospital (ACH) where encouragement from an exceptionally supportive manager and colleagues landed her “home” for approximately four years. She then moved to a mental health clinician role with the Psychiatric Emergency Services Team, Emergency Department, at ACH, completing crisis assessments

“That’s where I formed the bonds and connections with my colleagues that truly gave me the confidence to find purpose, and to confidently say I can do this and I can make meaningful impact in the lives of these families and children. 

Honing in on her career path

Through her work at ACH, Habiak developed an interest in occupational health nursing and embarked on an Occupational Health Nursing Certificate through MacEwan University which she completed just before starting at the University of Calgary in 2016. 

“I found myself very interested in psychological health and safety in the workplace and how to promote a psychologically safe workplace within the context of such an acute care environment as a hospital. I didnt really understand or appreciate at the time my experience of secondary trauma and its impacts.

Habiak says she felt a familiar “surge of energy when she heard that UCalgary was entertaining a mental health consultant position for faculty, staff and postdoctoral scholars. “It was that feeling of this is it. Mental health AND psychological wellness in the workplace AND I get to come home to an environment that had been so essential in my growth and development as a nurse. 

Pandemic allows for freedom to seek mental health help 

When it comes to COVID-19, Habiak applauds the efforts of every individual who has sought mental health help. “Let us call it how it is. These COVID years, in addition to fiscal restraint, workforce reductions and change and uncertainty have been hard. Naturally, I have seen an increase in the amount of calls I’m receiving but should that not be something we encourage and celebrate? My ability to connect with individuals over the past two years has not been affected and I was happy to be able to continue to provide that benefit of connection through phone or Zoom.  

As peers and colleagues, we all have a part to play,” she adds.

Our job isn’t to know all the therapeutic counselling methods in that moment: connect and listen free of judgment to those around you.

"Start a conversation with those for whom you know something has changed but who may not be opening up about it.” And, as it did for both Habiak and her ill patient so many years ago, a simple ‘how are you’ can go a long way.

Habiak believes wholeheartedly in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s quote that she is “a part of all” that she has met. “In other words, above all, I now see how essentially important the connections I made, the people I met and the lessons I learned would shape me and essentially lead me to the passion I feel in the work I do now.” 

How Habiak and Staff Wellness help UCalgary staff 

We often share this concept of your reaction is your reaction. Everyone is going to react differently to challenges and events. Rather than judge the reaction, we consider that perhaps the person is having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. In this sense and within the space I hold with individuals we consider and brainstorm together what resources may be beneficial for the point in time they find themselves. 

As taught in the Working Mind and the Inquiring Mind, our mental health is not static and distress is not a linear experience. Our responses can and do fluctuate and this applies to resources too. Approaching conversations with empathy and compassion and listening to understand of where someone might be on the continuum of mental health. 

“While it would be impossible for me to list all the resources that University offers along the mental health continuum there are those that can help navigate and what is available on campus. For instance, there are peer support programs, wellness advocate programs and workplace champions amongst you that I know will be more than happy to lend a compassionate listening ear

“There are workshops and programs within Wellbeing and Work life and Student Wellness Services (and so many others within departments and faculties), the Campus Mental Health Strategy (CMHS) and its programming and initiatives, the University of Calgary Recovery Committee, Student Wellness Services- Mental Health Services, Employee and Family Assistance through Lifeworks. If you do not see what speaks to you and your needs here, please reach out to a peer, colleague, manager and/or someone in Staff or Student Wellness and we can help find the right door for you. 

The CMHS also supports programming that we might not see as mental health programming but is also about creating connection and community, supporting flourishing and promoting wellbeing.  

If you are truly concerned about someone's reaction and the safety of them or those around them, we want to act.  Call 911 for life-threatening situations. Call Campus Security 24/7 at 403-220-5333 for all other situations. 

Amanda with sons Archer and Nash

Courtesy of Amanda Habiak