Celebrating Ontario nurses: Q & A with Karen Frecker

Recent grad and COUPN Award winner for excellence in nursing Karen Frecker shares her experiences in nursing school and in the workforce

It’s National Nursing Week, a time to celebrate the hard work and dedication of our nurses to heath care in Ontario, in Canada and around the world – each and every day.

In partnership with dedicated staff at hospitals around the province, nursing faculty are training the next generation of registered nurses, registered practical nurses and nurses practitioners in the province. With roots in strong academic education and experiential learning through hospital placements, nursing graduates are ready to become highly-skilled members of health care teams whose vital contributions shape the future of health care.

In this Q & A, we spoke to nursing student Karen Frecker, who received the award for Excellence in Professional Nursing Practice at the Undergraduate Student Level from the Council of Ontario Universities’ Programs in Nursing (COUPN) this past April. She talked to us about what led her into nursing, her student experience and placements, and her future plans.

Karen Frecker stands with her parents and nominator at the 2016 COUPN Awards.

What led you into nursing?

This degree is actually my second degree. My first degree was in Peace and Conflict Studies and Economics, and after that degree, I spent about a decade working in the Energy sector. And I ended up looking for something that was more grounded in the values of care and compassion.

I spent two years volunteering at Sick Kids, and saw the amazing care that the nurses provide, as well as the rest of the members of the team. That inspired me to join the nursing profession – and here I am.

Why do you think you were chosen to win the COUPN Award for Excellence in Professional Nursing Practice at the Undergraduate Level?

In speaking with some outside mentors, I’ve received some feedback that they can see some of the nursing excellence that they’ve passed on in my practice. I think there is also an important component of attending to the social determinants of health, which is something I’m quite passionate about. It’s a combination of both practice and attending to broader structural issues that affect our practice.

You talked about the social determinants of health. Can you talk about what you mean by that, and how it crosses over into nursing?

A lot of the experience of health and well-being is mediated through structural and social factors that were more historically seen as outside the field of health. These factors, things like racialized identity, gender, sexuality, level of income and access to education, are the social determinants of health and they can really strongly impact a person’s opportunities and chances in life. For instance, people who are chronically experiencing racism may have higher blood pressure or may have higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, in part because they’re facing chronic stresses in their day-to-day life associated with exclusionary practices.

Nurses are given a privileged position of seeing into people’s lives. When you’re caring for somebody, it’s really important that you’re mindful of a complex array of forces and factors that are impacting that person’s reality, and therefore the care that you provide. I have seen in clinical practice how precarious housing or homelessness makes the experience of death and dying even more problematic. Being interested in palliative care, I’ve noticed how people who are precariously housed face a lot more constraints at a time when most people would argue that a good death is really important. I can see how a patient’s social reality plays into that.

How has your education prepared you for those situations?

I’ve been provided with both a sensitive and simultaneously rigorous nursing program at the University of Toronto. We’re provided with a lot of really excellent clinical opportunities, and the fact that we’re in the Greater Toronto Area means that we get to see a lot of different realities and people coming from different backgrounds with differential levels of access. We’ve been provided with a great practice environment, with great mentorship from our clinical preceptors and clinical instructors, and the in-class and simulation education has been outstanding.

Did you have any role models or mentors?

All of the faculty and people I’ve worked with have modelled caring, and each one has had their unique style. I’ve learned from everyone I’ve worked with, and am very grateful for the care and nourishment and expertise of my teachers. I’ve benefitted more than words can say from their encouragement, mentorship, and leadership in modelling nursing excellence.

What is the importance of nursing and its impact on society?

Nurses have a very privileged view into the lives of the people for whom we care. We see a lot of things that would otherwise go unnoticed in other parts of the economy or in industry.

I think nurses also have a responsibility to bring what they see to the policy agenda and influence some of the realities that we see. We have a lot of respect from the public, which has been well-earned by the nurses who came before us, so we’re well-placed to make change.

What has been the most important learning or take-away from your studies?

The importance of hope and of working together in collaboration with a vision of shared humanity.

What are your plans after graduation?

It’s all very fluid. I love working with children and their families. I came to nursing through volunteering at Sick Kids, so I have a strong interest in pediatrics. I also have an interest in the social determinants of health and these broader structural factors. I’m also interested in palliative care, and death and dying, so I’m not sure exactly how all of those things are going to unfold and come together. I’ll follow opportunities, and I think wherever I end up, I’ll continue learning and growing because I think these are the types of issues that show up everywhere.

Do you have any advice for future nursing students?

Find your passion – what brings you to nursing and why you want to be a nurse. Foster that and keep it alive.

Karen Frecker


Karen Frecker is a BScN student at the University Toronto. A strong student academically, her clinical preceptor says her nursing skills stood out most during her clinical placement in palliative care, where she showed “clinical knowledge and skills that far exceed those of a typical undergraduate student.” Working at a hospice that provides end-of-life care to individuals during their last three months of life, Karen treated each of her patients with dignity, respect, professionalism, patience and empathy.