‘These are really badass people’: Nursing grad finds her calling in caring

How one student found her voice as an advocate for patients and other nurses.

Hanna Filipovic

Through her clinical education in nursing and her experiences in student politics, Hanna Filipovic found her vocation as a leader and advocate. (Photo: John Ulan)

Cool air blew from above, nearly as bracing as the antiseptic smell of chlorhexidine that wafted through the operating room. The surgeon bent over a completely still older man, carefully inserting a small wire into an artery in the patient’s groin, searching for the path to repair an aneurysm. 

It was the first time Hanna Filipovic had witnessed a surgery up close. As a second-year science student, she was thinking about a career in medicine, so she jumped at the chance to shadow a surgical team at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital for a day.

“I was just soaking it all in and watching all these people work together very seamlessly,” she remembers. “Everyone had a role. They were having fun, but they were also professional and serious. And it looked like an amazing place to work.”

Reliving it in her mind that evening, what stood out for Filipovic wasn’t the doctors, but the nurses. None of it could have happened without their planning and quick reactions — and most important, their comfort. When the patient came to, it was a nurse who held his hand, rubbed his shoulder and told him the surgery had been a success. 

“How amazing is it that the nurses get to be that person, in that time?” she asks, having recently gone through her own experience as a patient undergoing surgery for a deviated septum. ”As a patient, you're so scared, you're lonely, there's no family members or anything in there.”

“I just remember watching those nurses and thinking — pardon my language — ‘These are really badass people. This is so cool. I need to be in here.’”

Fulfilling her destiny

It was that experience that sealed her decision. “I realized that I wanted to be a nurse way more than I wanted to be a doctor,” she says now. “I want to spend time with people and I want to get to know patients and build relationships. I noticed that, unfortunately, in our health-care system, it's a bit more difficult for physicians to do that.”

It almost seems like destiny. Filipovic’s maternal grandmother was from Lebanon and her father is from Bosnia. Both of her grandmothers wanted to be nurses, but it wasn’t an option in their small villages.

“You would have to go to the big city and go to school, and it wasn't really allowed for a woman to go by herself,” Filipovic explains. “But now I feel like nursing is in my blood, like they're kind of able to achieve their dreams through me.”

Filipovic, now 24, graduates this month after maintaining first class standing throughout her time in the Faculty of Nursing. She found her vocation, and — though she describes herself as a shy, anxious child — she found her voice as an advocate for patients and for other nurses.

Becoming a leader

It started with volunteering, which her family had been doing monthly for years at Operation Friendship Seniors Society in Edmonton’s inner city. The Students’ Union was looking for people to greet new students during its annual Week of Welcome at the beginning of the school year. Soon she had stepped up to be a team facilitator, leading 20 other volunteers. She was supposed to be a co-leader, but the other leader got accepted into medical school and had to drop the role. She carried on by herself.

“I loved working with my team and built some really great relationships. We volunteered together, we played soccer against other teams, had barbecues with them, went bowling, stuff like that. It was a really amazing experience,” Filipovic remembers.

She’s always been interested in political science, so when the 2019 Alberta provincial election was announced, Filipovic volunteered for the SU’s Get Out The Vote, walking around campus with a tablet helping students register to vote. She did it again for the 2021 federal and municipal campaigns. 

Soon encouraging others to participate in the political process just didn’t seem like enough, so Filipovic put her name forward to represent nursing students, first as the U of A rep with the Canadian Nursing Students' Association, serving from 2019 to 2022, and later as the nursing faculty rep on the U of A Students’ Union in 2020 and 2021.

The first time Filipovic ran for elected office, she nearly lost her nerve. There were six candidates and it seemed like a hopeless cause. She told her parents about her doubts, but they encouraged her to continue.

“They said, ‘What's the worst thing that could happen?’” she recalls. “So I made my posters, and we had to stand in front of classrooms and give our little spiel of why you should vote for us. I'd never done anything like that before, so that was really scary.”

But she won, and was able to attend a CNSA conference in Montreal, where she listened with growing excitement to the keynote speakers. One nurse presented on health-care equity for LGBTQ people; another talked about her role responding to emergencies by helicopter. Neonatal intensive care nurses spoke, and university researchers.

“It just really just opened my eyes that there's so much beyond hospital nursing,” Filipovic points out. “It helped me realize this profession is really just whatever you want it to be. There's so many opportunities.”

During her time as a student representative, Filipovic helped found new scholarships to encourage marginalized students, international students and committed volunteers to study nursing. She organized social, professional development and fundraising events to bring learning nurses together. 

Hanna Filipovic
Hanna Filipovic says a career in nursing gives her many ways to pursue her purpose: “This profession is really just whatever you want it to be. There's so many opportunities.” (Photo: John Ulan)

Interrupted by COVID

And then there was COVID. Filipovic showed up at 7 a.m. for another day of her second-year clinical practicum at the Sturgeon Community Hospital in March 2020, not having read her emails the night before. The SARS-CoV-2 virus was on the loose in the community and public health measures had been announced to slow its progress. 

“After that, we just got cut short. We were at home,” Filipovic recalls.

Classes transitioned to online instruction and practicums were suspended, at least temporarily. Once they resumed, Filipovic had to speak up to make sure students who got sick wouldn’t be penalized for missing shifts. When the vaccine was released, she advocated to the faculty and Alberta Health Services to make sure nursing students would be offered the shot as soon as possible. 

“We were working with health-compromised people every day in our clinicals and putting ourselves and our loved ones at risk for contracting the virus, and I believed we should be prioritized just the same as staff nurses,” Filipovic says.

By June 2020, Filipovic was hired as an undergraduate nurse employee for AHS’ mass vaccination clinics. She was supposed to work for Canada Immigration that summer, but the job had been cancelled due to COVID-19. Filipovic figures she has given the shot to more than 5,000 people since. She felt good about being able to do something tangible to help during the pandemic.

“Every vaccine that I put in someone’s arm brought us a little bit closer to this thing being over and helping to protect people,” Filipovic says. 

Working with intention

She relished the learning experience of dealing with such a wide variety of patients, from those who were grateful to get the vaccine to those who definitely were not. During her time as a nursing student, Filipovic won an astonishing number of academic and volunteer awards — Michael Phair Leadership Award, Muriel Hole Award in Nursing, Margaret Baxter Memorial Scholarship in Nursing, University of Alberta Undergraduate Leadership Award, Tom Lancaster Award (twice), Jason Lang Scholarship (twice), and Tevie Miller Involvement Award — but it is all of the hands-on experiences working with patients that fuelled her passion. 

Not surprisingly, she has a real flair for it. Lynne Kirsch, a registered nurse on the antepartum ward at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, knew from her first meeting with Filipovic that she would be a natural at bedside care. Filipovic got to mirror Kirsch and another nurse for her clinical placement in the fall of 2021. She spent two months taking care of women with high-risk pregnancies. She impressed Kirsch right away with her knowledge of the types of diagnoses and medications she would be working with on the ward.

“She was more prepared than most students, and she just kept working above expectations the whole time,” Kirsch says. “It’s one thing to have textbook knowledge, it’s another to know how it applies to a real patient. And you have to manage not just one but five patients at a time.” 

Filipovic would instantly establish a rapport with each patient, putting them at ease by talking with them about their babies, despite their worry. 

“Patients would ask if she was going to be their nurse again,” Kirsch recalls. “It was a wonder to watch. She really stood out.” 

Filipovic aspires to do a master’s degree and hopes one day to teach or hold another leadership role in nursing. For now, she has been offered a job on the same ward with Kirsch, which she will start as soon as she has written her RN licensing exam this month. 

Filipovic says she tries to be thorough and intentional in her work.

“Nursing is a profession where you can’t be lazy. Everything we do as nurses, whether we realize it or not, has an impact on our patients,” she says. “We connect the patient to the health-care system. We facilitate everything. We make referrals. We’re really the centre of the spiderweb.”

The COVID pandemic has underscored for her the importance of nurses to the health-care system and stoked her excitement to join the profession, despite the stress and burnout that have led some to leave it. 

Lynne Kirsch is pleased to have Filipovic back as a colleague, and expects she will soon tap into the leadership skills she honed as a student. 

“I have no doubt she will go far and do big things for nursing.”