Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

The Magazine Of Queen's University

Search form

Northern exposure

Northern exposure

Phyllis Durnford knows how important a qualified team of nurses can be to an Arctic community and she discovered a way that she could help attract more of them.

Phyllis Durnford smiles while overlooking the Arctic Ocean.

Phyllis Durnford, NSc ’69, wanted to see the impact of her gift now, so she created an award to promote clinical postings in the Canadian Arctic.

Fourth-year Queen’s nursing students now have the opportunity to train and contribute in Northern Canada’s most underserved communities – an opportunity that is only possible because Phyllis Durnford took the time to connect the dots in her life story.

Durnford, NSc’69, followed in her mother’s footsteps and studied nursing at the Kingston General Hospital School in the mid-1960s. During her first year, she met a nurse who worked as a clinical nurse specialist in cardiovascular disease. “That opened my eyes as to where one could go potentially,” she says. 

First though, she would need a Nursing degree. She chose to study at Queen’s for the most practical of reasons: “It was convenient,” she says. “It meant that I wouldn’t have to move.”
It was a choice that launched an impressive career. “An undergraduate degree in nursing can be a springboard to just about anything,” Durnford says. “I’ve done things that never would have entered my mind.” She took a lead role in training Toronto ambulance officers to become advanced-care paramedics in the 1980s. She served as trauma coordinator at Sick Kids Hospital. While working as a Nurse Case Manager at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, she was selected as the Subject Matter Expert in the development of their Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Program of Care.

But before she embarked on that career, though, she took a detour to north-east Alberta. After Convocation, her husband accepted a military posting at CFB Cold Lake in northern Alberta and she found work in a local hospital which had a big population of Indigenous people. “I found the attitude being taken toward the Indigenous people – I’m going to be polite – questionable,” she says. 

Determined to provide her patients with the care they deserved, Durnford made a point of starting to learn the Cree language, common to that population. “It was a small gesture,” she says, “but it really got me thinking about what could be done to better serve these communities. It’s like a little seed was planted.”

That seed sprouted a few decades later, when she made three trips to the Arctic as part of an expedition travel group. “Everyone else was downtown looking for souvenirs, but I made a beeline to the health centre,” she says. “I noticed that more of the nurses were new to the community. That was when I really connected the dots.”

As Durnford thought about how important a qualified team of nurses can be to an Arctic community, she discovered a way that she could help attract more of them. “I initially thought about an estate gift to the School of Nursing,” she says.  “And then I thought, ‘wait a minute, what can I do right now that would help promote the idea of doing part of your nursing career in the North?’”

What she could do, she realized, was to make the gift now, so Phyllis made a gift by transferring marketable securities to Queen’s. In doing this, Phyllis was able to get the award off the ground now and she may still choose to enhance this opportunity in her estate.

The Northern Canada Nursing Study Award, which Durnford created in 2020, will cover expenses to enable a fourth-year nursing student to accept a clinical posting in the Canadian Arctic or other northern rural and remote areas. “The idea is to give someone the means to go a bit further afield and do something that might not have been possible because of the travel and accommodation costs,” she says.

Durnford is excited about possibilities that the award affords – both for nursing students and for the communities where they’ll work and train. Most of all, she’s excited that she will have the opportunity to see the impact these young nurses can make. “If you really want to make an impact, don’t wait until you die to make it happen,” she says. “Do it now.”

If you would like more information on how to create your own meaningful legacy at Queen’s University, contact the Gift Planning office by calling 1-800-267-7837 or visiting our webpage.

graphic of cover of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 2, 2021