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Operation lifelong learning

AU’s 2017 Distinguished Alumni award recipient stands up for her country and for the nurses she trains and mentors in the Canadian Armed Forces

Not many people in the Canadian Armed Forces hold a job with an honorary line to the monarchy. Lieutenant Colonel Rhonda Crew and her newly appointed designation, Chief of Nursing Services—or, as she calls it—“The Honorary Nurse for the Queen”—is one of them.

A Nursing Policy and Staff Officer for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), Crew received the honour in Jan., 2016—a “pretty exciting” accolade, she says. Upon joining the CAF more than 20 years ago, she never would have dreamed today she’d be standing among the ranks of the Surgeon General and the CAF’s Director of Dental Services.

Now, she says she enjoys adding “all the different accoutrements” to her uniform.

The resident of Stittsville, Ontario, graduated with a Master of Nursing degree in 2016 from Athabasca University, with a teaching and learning focus. Before that, she received her BN from Dalhousie University “I’m actually one of the old-school, registered diploma nurses from back in 1992 — from The Victoria General Hospital School of Nursing in Halifax,” she says.

This week, Crew will add another title to her auspicious roster of rankings: Athabasca University’s 2017 Distinguished Alumni award recipient—an accolade befitting one who has brought honour and prestige to the university—in Crew’s case, having accomplished so much in the area of education, community service and caring.

On the job, Crew excels in coaching and mentorship. She routinely oversees the requirement for training of the Military Nursing Officers, ensuring they are sufficiently prepared for missions both domestic and abroad. It wasn’t long ago she was in their shoes, deployed around the world with the Royal Canadian Air Force, working in aeromedical roles, and as a hospital military nurse, in war-torn (former) Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and natural-disaster-ravaged Haiti.

Now, as she remarks: “I have passed the baton.”

“My role now is to support the nurses to be able to do their jobs to the best of their ability.”

In-flight training

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, she managed the medical airlifts in the Area of Responsibility working in Sarajevo and collaborated with her American counterparts designing a program to integrate Yugoslavian women into the military. In 2007, she spent almost a year as the Flight Nursing Officer in Afghanistan both working with the American Dustoff Medical Evacuation Flight — flying to sites of injury in Forward Operating Bases, and working in a large multinational hospital treating Canadian soldiers, allies, combatants, prisoners and Afghan civilians.

“I provided bedside care with a weapon on my side. We were getting rocket attacks while handling patients — we’d be covering them with ballistic blankets and running those who could ambulate to the bunkers,” says Crew.

The following year, the CBC television news program, The Fifth Estate, profiled Crew’s important work in Afghanistan, following her around for a documentary entitled The Life and Death in Kandahar.

In addition to Crew’s focus on training and support for nurses deploying overseas, conversely, she’s a staunch advocate for their mental and physical after-care upon returning—providing the strategic recommendations to ensure nurses are accommodated with the necessary respite, for the appropriate amount of time, allowing them to re-integrate successfully into their lives at home.

“I provided bedside care with a weapon on my side. We were getting rocket attacks while handling patients — we’d be covering them with ballistic blankets and running those who could ambulate to the bunkers.”

– LCol. Rhonda Crew

Role call

Crew asserts should it be required—the Canadian Armed Forces are primed and prepared to protect their country, our allies, and peoples in need—in a moment’s notice.

“There’s always a chance something’s going to happen—regardless of what the public knows or doesn’t know. We’re just always prepared; we are soldiers—we would do what we are told to do.”

A sobering thought, yet an equally comforting reminder that leaders like Lt. Col. Rhonda Crew are steadfast in their commitment to “standing on guard for thee”—protecting Canada and providing outstanding care to those in our nation’s service.

“That’s certainly one way of putting it!” she remarks.

“I’ve been in the military for so many years, I wouldn’t think of it any other way. I’m a little bit of a nurturer. That’s kind of my thing.”

Dandelion or orchid

But Crew’s true calling is teaching. Last year, she created the Canadian Forces’ Health Services Coaching and Mentoring pilot program. She believes a mentor can be anybody—a colleague, a subordinate, or a superior.

“Boss or not, everybody has something to offer, she says, pointing out that the number-one reason mentoring may fail is the lack of communications skills—something she addressed in her final AU paper, which was published in the Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing.

Crew says it’s vital that the mentor and mentee “step off on the right foot.”

She is a fan of the model known as the dandelion and the orchid theory.

“There are just these people in the world—we’ll call those ‘the dandelions’—where it doesn’t matter how many bad things happen to them; they thrive; they’re still beautiful—yellow, healthy and happy—weed or not,” Crew explains.

“And then there are these people, ‘the orchids,’ that, even if absolutely everything goes right, it’s hard to keep them going. [Real-life] orchids are really hard to keep alive … they just are very delicate flowers.”

Crew says she’s “chosen to be a dandelion.”

“I’ve had some serious encounters while I’ve been deployed and I just believe that if you’re positive, it’s contagious.”

At 47, Crew has lived and worked across the country. She jokes that rather than hailing from one place in particular, she regards herself as ‘one big Canadian.’

A proponent of the adage ‘home is where you hang your hat,’ Crew’s home, she says, “is wherever my cats and my husband are.” Her robust support system includes her best friend, her “amazing sisters,” her husband, Duane Bryson, and their two Siamese snow cats: Loki and Nugget.

“I’ve had some serious encounters while I’ve been deployed and I just believe that if you’re positive, it’s contagious.”

– LCol. Rhonda Crew

Sadly, eight years ago, while Crew was employed as the Flight Commander of the Canadian Forces Aeromedical Evacuation Flight in Trenton, Duane, while working as a Search-And-Rescue Technician off the coast of Vancouver Island, was seriously injured in a diving accident. He suffered a brain injury that forced him to retire from the military.

The couple managed to adapt. Today, Duane’s perseverance has allowed him to regain some of his motor function. He can walk again; even drive a car. Crew didn’t want her husband to be home, alone, all day. Problem solved—in the form of book-end fur buddies, Loki and Nugget, who remain by Duane’s side throughout the day—bred specifically, in fact, for companionship.

“They keep him company. They act like dogs but they don’t need to be taken for walks,” Crew quips.

Last year, she watched with joyful pride as Duane—or ‘Retired Sergeant Bryson,’ competed as a track-and-field athlete in the Invictus Games 2016.

rhonda with sister and husband
[l t r] Sharon Tetz (Rhonda’s sister); Rhonda Crew, and husband Duane at the Invictus Games 2016

For her part, Crew is also involved with the Canadian Adaptive Snow Sports (CADS) in support of injured athletes. Each year, she and Duane attend its winter sports clinic for Canada’s ill and injured veterans.

Distance learning drill

Crew’s knack for adaptability goes hand-in-hand with Athabasca University’s ethos for excellence and flexibility in open, online and distance-learning. As someone who has worked for the Canadian Armed Forces for more than 20 years (as well as nearly four years with the reserves), she says discovering AU was a fantastic chapter that allowed her to remain in charge of her life—personally and professionally.

Working a full-time job in the military is rife with responsibility and competing developments that often “happen at the spur of the moment’—something Crew acknowledges AU is very accepting of. “It was important to me to find an educational institution that would support my needs, while providing me with a flexible, rich and rewarding experience,” she says.

“I did not need to travel or attend classes in-person; AU allowed me to learn at my own pace, in my own surroundings, and with a diverse peer group.”

She notes that many of her military nursing peers have been “following the AU program,” and that she routinely recommends AU to others—not only for its flexibility but also for its simpatico with the “operational needs of the military.”

“AU instructors and staff are very accommodating and understanding,” she adds, noting that additionally she likes the fact that the program allowed her to focus on her two passions: learning and teaching.

When she one day decides to conclude her military career, she feels it would be fitting to trade in her Air Force wedge (hat) for professor’s hat.

For Crew, being recognized today by her alma mater is unexpected and very rewarding.

“First, I get the honour of being the Queen’s Nurse, and now I get the honour of being the AU Distinguished Alumni. That is just really, really wonderful.”

  • October 19, 2017