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From petroleum to public health: U of T Nursing grad embarks on second career

After more than a decade working in Canada's oil sands, U of T grad Jacqueline Wetton decided to launch a new career in nursing (photo courtesy of Jacqueline Wetton)

With a degree in engineering and over a decade of experience working for some of Canada’s largest oil sands producers, Jacqueline Wetton built a strong foundation for a long career in the oil and gas industry.

But two years ago, the mother of two decided to leave it all behind and start over as a nurse – in part due to the circumstances surrounding the birth of her first child, but also because of a nagging feeling that the oil and gas business ultimately wasn’t a good fit.

So, she enrolled in the bachelor of science program at the University of Toronto’s Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing.

“It sounds really cliché, but I wanted my children to see me doing something that made a difference in people’s lives everyday,” says Wetton, 37, of her decision to switch careers. “I felt that I wasn’t doing that in my previous job.”

Going back to school while raising a young family was tricky enough, but Wetton – like all U of T students – also had to navigate an unexpected and unprecedented challenge: a global pandemic. Yet, she still managed to earn the Dean’s Medal, the highest academic honour offered by the faculty.

Wetton graduated with her first degree in environmental engineering from Dalhousie University in 2008, at the height of the oil sands boom. She and her husband, whom she met at Dalhousie, settled in Alberta and established careers in oil and gas. But working in an industry that is contributing so directly to climate change didn’t sit right with them.

“Something we talked about a lot and always struggled with was the moral issue of working for oil and gas,” says Wetton. “We tried to justify it to ourselves by saying, ‘Well, the world needs energy’ or ‘If we weren’t doing this job, somebody else would be.’”

Jacqueline Wetton with sons

Jacqueline Wetton is pictured with her two sons, Nash (left) and Milo (right), and the Dean’s Medal from the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing (photo courtesy of Jacqueline Wetton)

She also endured struggles as a woman in a male-dominated environment.

“I was very stressed at times trying to hold my own with guys that were my dad’s age or older telling me ‘I don’t have to listen to you’ and that sort of thing.”

Eventually, the couple moved to Toronto to be closer to family, while maintaining their jobs in Alberta and regularly flying out to their work camp north of Fort McMurray.

They also decided to start a family of their own, with Wetton becoming pregnant in late 2014.

In late April 2015, while her husband was in Alberta for his camp rotation, Wetton’s water broke a month prematurely. She was rushed to what is now Michael Garron Hospital to give birth while her husband scrambled to get a flight back to Toronto.

She says the experience of being helped through a successful premature birth was one of the factors that ultimately nudged her toward a career in nursing.

“Even though it was stressful dealing with the uncertainties of what was going on, having those medical professionals – especially the nurses, because they’re the ones who are there round the clock, checking on you every hour, providing emotional support and doing a lot of the hands-on tasks – was really eye-opening to me.”

In 2017, Wetton became pregnant for the second time and went on maternity leave. By then, her husband had quit his engineering job and started his own business – but Wetton still had to figure out her next career move.

At the time, her younger sister was starting a career as a nurse. Wetton recalls a conversation with her that had a huge impact.

“[It was] this sentiment she had of like, ‘Even when I have a really bad day at work, I come away from it feeling like at least I helped somebody and I made a difference in their life that day,” she says. “I really admired that, and it was something that made me think, ‘Geez, if I could go back and do it all over, maybe I should’ve done nursing.’”

And so she did. Wetton settled on the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing’s two-year bachelor of science, a second-entry program that caters to students with previous university education and career experiences.

She says the first fall semester was relatively smooth sailing. But by the time winter set in, Wetton was in clinical environments on a regular basis and noting something worrisome was around the corner due to COVID-19 – even if she didn’t comprehend the scale of what was to come.

In March 2020, with Toronto experiencing its first pandemic lockdown, Wetton found herself having to run the household and watch the kids during the day and then catch up on recorded lectures late at night.

The following fall and winter would prove to be even more stressful. Wetton was now doing in-person clinical shifts twice a week and worried constantly about potentially exposing her family to the virus. She and her husband could also no longer rely on family or hired help for childcare. “That was really hard. There were a lot of late nights for both of us – just trying to catch up on whatever we didn’t accomplish during the day,” she says.

Then, this past April, Wetton began her 12-week practicum at Mount Sinai Hospital, doing a mix of daytime and evening shifts on a full-time schedule, which meant little time with her kids.

While completing a practicum amid a pandemic brought challenges, it also heightened Wetton’s interest in public health and strengthened her conviction that she belonged in nursing.

“I saw how the social determinants of health can influence why a person might get sick and why certain populations are more affected than others. I saw the benefits of public health and what people in public health can do with the right guidance and influence on the population,” she says. “It cemented my gut feeling that I had when I started the program that this would be a good fit for me.

“I really felt I’d found my spot in the universe.”

Wetton also credits her second-year course, NUR461 (Primary Health Care: Nursing Perspectives), with fostering her interest in community and public health nursing. “You’re looking at things from a holistic, preventative viewpoint. You’re not just engaging with individuals or families – you’re engaging with communities, and there’s a social justice aspect to it as well,” she says. “It just really spoke to me.”

Wetton is now on the lookout for jobs in public health nursing. “I’d really like to get involved with Toronto Public Health or Public Health Ontario,” she says. “I’d like to continue with health promotion, illness prevention and looking at how we can make whole communities of people healthier.”

As she prepares for that first job, albeit in a second career, Wetton says her early fears around leaving engineering, being too old to start a second degree or not fitting in with younger classmates all proved to be unfounded.

“Everybody’s in the program because they want to be a good nurse and they care about other people, and everyone was so supportive,” she says. “The faculty as well were so supportive of people with different work-life situations. They value that expertise because the more viewpoints you can get from people, the more it just enriches everybody’s experience.”

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