Chinnama describes her nursing life as a journey, and indeed it was; one that brought her from India to Canada and to some very advanced nursing positions. “I came from a third world country and was blessed to have had the opportunities to grow personally and professionally in Canada. I was also a good student and it helped me to advance in my nursing career.”
Chinnama didn’t always want to be a nurse; teaching was her first choice of career. She graduated with first class standing from senior secondary and attended college for one year before being interviewed for a degree program in nursing at Christian Medical College Hospital in Vellore, South India (known as the best College in India). Thirty women were invited for a very challenging three-day interview and assessment process, and at the end 15 were selected for the BScN program. Chinnama was selected and began her nursing career at the age of 17. She completed her four-year degree program in nursing and a six-month certificate program in midwifery in 1963. The nursing program was very progressive: it included courses in English, Sociology and Nursing Research and both urban and rural public health nursing in addition to the various nursing courses. Anatomy and Physiology for the degree nurses were offered at the Medical College. The School of Nursing was affiliated with a 2000-bed hospital, a medical college and offered many other allied health programs in addition to a nursing diploma, degree (BScN and MScN) and Medical degree.
When she completed the BScN program, Chinnama had received a job offer from a hospital in Canada. She had not yet worked, and at 21 years of age, her first job was in Wrinch Memorial Hospital in Hazelton, BC. In her job offer letter, she was told that the population of Hazelton was three quarters Indian and of course coming from India, she took this to mean what we now call South Asian, not aboriginal peoples. The 35 bed hospital in a rural setting was a totally different experience from the one she had in a large urban hospital in India. “During night shifts you were the only RN working with one LPN and were responsible for emergency, maternity, pediatrics and general medical/surgical patients.” Chinnama was often very afraid of dealing with people who were drunk coming into the emergency room. She said, “and thank God I had midwifery because the native women would come in and have babies in a hurry and I would know what to do.” In fact she was the charge nurse during night shift, yet duties included a number of non-nursing tasks, for example rinsing out soiled linen after a baby was born.
Chinnama had worked in Hazelton for one year when she was in a car accident while travelling with a friend from Hazelton to Terrace and Kitimat. She ended up in Kitimat General Hospital, unconscious, with a broken jaw and elbow (there had been no seat belt in the car). There was an “amazing” orthopedic surgeon there who performed surgery on her and assisted her with rehabilitation. She ended up working in the Kitimat General Hospital for one year.
In 1966 she went to Kamloops and worked at Royal Inland Hospital for six months in pediatrics and then began teaching at the hospital’s School of Nursing. Initially she taught Anatomy and Physiology and Pharmacology. “My first class had 64 students (one man and 63 women) and students stood up and greeted you when you entered the classroom!”
In the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a movement in nursing education across North America to move nursing programs from hospitals to educational institutions. As a result, there was a plan in place to close the long-standing and highly reputable Royal Inland Hospital School of Nursing and move the nursing program to Cariboo College (which opened in 1970) in Kamloops. Chinnama realized that this was the best time to pursue a university education in Canada, and a Master’s degree in Nursing from UBC was her best option. The only choice she had was to quit her job and move to Vancouver and enroll in the two-year, full-time, campus-based program at UBC. She began the program with 12 other women and one man in 1972.
By this time, Chinnama was married and had a two year old son. She rented a family housing unit on campus with her son (her husband had to work in Kamloops), who she placed in the UBC parent co-op day care facility. She had to volunteer four hours per week at the day care. She remembers how difficult it was even to go to the library with a child in tow. She had to use every hour effectively to keep up with reading and assignments. After completing the first year she went back to Kamloops and worked as a staff nurse at Royal Inland Hospital and was tempted not to return to UBC for the second year to complete the program. However, she is glad that she persisted in returning, “It was not easy,” she says, “with no income, commuting on some weekends to Kamloops, and raising a toddler while taking a full course load in a graduate program in nursing.” She had received a bursary from RNABC that was given to nurses to pursue graduate degrees in nursing and it was a great help.
It is still “amazing” to her that she was able to complete the program with First Class standing. There was an “incredible group of faculty” at UBC at the time, Chinnama says, including Dr. Alice Baumgart, who taught Issues in Nursing and Dr. Margaret Campbell who taught Curriculum Development, and several others Chinnama admired who taught Nursing Research and Clinical Nursing. She also took elective courses (e.g. Sociology of Education, Social Psychology) and Chinnama found these very intellectually stimulating. “The nursing faculty challenged students intellectually and treated us with respect. One of them invited us to her home one evening for a delicious home-cooked meal. The two years at UBC were, in so many ways, a wonderful experience, and it is still a great feeling to have been a part of the UBC School of Nursing.”
After completing her MSN in 1974, Chinnama went back to Kamloops and was offered a job in the Cariboo College Nursing Program. She was at Cariboo College from 1974 until 2003 when she retired. During those years she assumed the roles of Nursing Instructor, Year/ Program Co-coordinator, Chairperson, Associate Dean and Dean of the School of Nursing. Meanwhile, Cariboo College had become the University College of the Cariboo (UCC), and is now Thompson Rivers University (TRU).
Chinnama realized how significant it was for her to obtain a Master’s degree in nursing, as the knowledge she gained in the program helped her in each role she assumed. In the 1970s, nurses with Master’s degrees in nursing were limited in number. In fact, Chinnama was the only nurse at Cariboo College with an MSN degree. The knowledge she gained from Margaret Campbell in curriculum development was an asset in developing a curriculum based on a nursing model (a requirement by RNABC for program approval) and she was able to provide leadership in this area within the School of Nursing (She was later released for one year to work with Dr. Campbell to develop a curriculum based on a nursing model). Chinnama also assumed a leadership role in a number of initiatives in nursing education in her community and within the province. One such initiative was changing the two-year diploma nursing program to a three-year program within the college setting. Cariboo College was granted permission to offer this three-year program as a pilot project (the mandate of community colleges was to offer programs that did not exceed more than two years in length) and it remained as a three-year program until the four-year BSN program was commenced at UCC. She also pioneered in bringing the post RN BSN program from UVIC to UCC. In fact, with this initiative in nursing, the move toward access to degree education in the interior of BC became a reality. The four-year BSN program also commenced at UCC when Cariboo College became a University College.
Chinnama served on the RNABC Board for two terms and assumed a leadership role in promoting baccalaureate education in nursing as a requirement for RN practice. She chaired the RNABC Entry to Practice Committee while on the Board. She was a founding member of the Collaborative Nursing Programs in BC. Cariboo College was one of the original five institutions that developed a collaborative curriculum for nursing in BC along with UVIC, Malaspina College, Okanagan College and Camosun College. She is very proud to state that, prior to her retirement, she worked with the UBC School of Nursing to offer the UBC Master in Nursing Program at UCC. This opened the door for nurses in the interior to obtain a Master’s degree in nursing in Kamloops.
Chinnama continued to be involved in nursing education even in her retired life by reviewing degree programs in nursing for the Degree Quality Assessment Board and as a site visitor for CRNBC program reviews.
“It has been an amazing journey. I came to Canada as a young naïve girl and grew up to be a woman and a professional nurse. My education at the UBC School of Nursing paved the way for me to become a leader in nursing and laid the foundation for completion of a PhD in Nursing later in my career. I am truly blessed and thankful for the opportunities I had as a nurse to grow and develop in Canada. As a leader in nursing education I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of nursing faculty who also embraced changes and challenges.”