When Donna Rodman enrolled at UBC in general arts, women either went into teaching, secretarial work, or nursing. Donna was interested in archaeology and nursing and her parents steered her decision saying “you can go anywhere with nursing.” She has always been known as compassionate, sensitive and caring; therefore, helping people, the chance to employ her analytical gifts, getting immersed and taking action contributed to her decision to choose nursing. She spent two years in the RN diploma program at UBC before graduating in 1978.
Donna recalls many anecdotes from her student days, but one experience that comes readily to mind was in critical care at B.C. Women’s Hospital & Health Centre, a patient arrived in labour with no doctor, no husband, and no English! Although Donna had just finished her rotation, no one was on shift who could communicate with the client. Being able to speak Spanish, she asked permission to stay so that she could help with the labour. She persuaded her instructors saying, “She will understand me when I tell her to push!” It was difficult, because she was acting unsupervised by UBC instructors, but she maintains that it was a good thing to do, and the right thing to do in that situation. “I’ve often been a maverick” says Donna, “taking the different path to find the best solution.”
Two other situations she recalls are from her rotations at St. Paul’s Hospital. One was when two young adults had locked braces while kissing. They came into the hospital still attached! Another involved a man who had gotten stuck to the toilet seat when going to the washroom. He was brought in by paramedics, toilet seat and all. “Everyone was laughing” she said, “we couldn’t help it, yet we still had to be sensitive to the stress and embarrassment of the situation. The patient responded, ‘I know it’s funny, and I’m sure I’ll be able to laugh about it later!’” And with that we all chuckled and worked to find the right tools from maintenance to remove the toilet seat.
“I loved my program!” asserts Donna, “It was hard work and challenging.” She graduated, got married immediately after writing her RN exams, and moved to Alberta, where she practiced for four and a half years in ICU and general floor duties in a small hospital.
Through her work in nursing she began to find she had other abilities and ideas for the improvement of physical space. For example, says Donna (who is 4’11” tall) “I would have to climb up on the beds to hang the IV bags or I would be in a supply room reaching all the time. I found that my built environment didn’t help me in my profession, but rather it was challenged by my profession.” Donna began an exploration of how the hospital environment was constructed, and envisioned using her mathematical, analytical and artistic skills to develop alternatives. Looking at the dynamics of healing, nursing andhospital environments, she realized that nursing care could be helped by having access to outdoor spaces and plants (i.e. horticultural therapy).
Donna never really left work at work, and was letting the job take over her life and her dreams. Her family life had been disrupted and she consequently returned to Vancouver in 1983, resumed her nursing at UBC and VGH working as a general rotation nurse and in psychogeriatrics for approximately two and a half years. In 1985, she went to Bangladesh to visit with her father (a civil engineer) and mother. They urged her to go back to Canada, return to school and pursue her passion for design.
She had enrolled in Urban Geography at UBC, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1984. Donna began volunteering for organizations working with people with disabilities, finding that she had a gift for looking through hospital and building designs, and would work with architects to upgrade buildings to meet standards. Because of her nursing experience and education, Donna could think of the human response to design in a functional way: the building needs to be accessible; people friendly with access to green spaces; must improve the quality of life of both the patient and health care professional. “I know how buildings work for people” says Donna, “I wanted to have input into the design professions.” So she went to BCIT to get drafting skills and building design experience, attending classes at night and working for architects during the day. She completed a Certificate in Technology – Building in 1993.
In 1994 Donna approached the UBC School of Architecture with her portfolio – which included the design of natural systems – and they suggested that her skills would be better applied in the School of Landscape Architecture. She was accepted into the Faculty of Graduate Studies, the Master program in Landscape Architecture. “I loved every step of the way!” says Donna. “I’ve been able to maintain a focus on people, designing for people and caring about people.” She did extensive research on color and textures, universal design, environmental psychology, landscape design, crime prevention through environmental design, and environmental design (designing with nature and natural systems) graduating with her Masters of Landscape Architecture in 1999.
After graduating, she developed an interest in institutional confinement: what plant material could assist with quality of life during long terms of confinement in a hospital, or better yet, in outer space? She got involved in neurophysiological research and wrote papers on the neuropsychophysiology of color, shape and texture and the connection between the built environment and mind. And all of this research she did on her own with no funding! This work brought Donna in contact with NASA, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Life Sciences Technical Committee and later to the 2005 International Conference on Environmental Systems in Rome, Italy with her paper, The Benefits of Using Aromatics in Space. She has also chaired the Life Sciences and Technical Committee for the AIAA.
Today, Donna is the president and founding principal of Our Designs Inc., a multidisciplinary design company which specializes in Universal Design and Human Factors research to provide aesthetically pleasing, creative, and healing designs appealing to a wide consumer group, and with her experience and education in landscape architecture, the company offers landscape design services that include: environmental design for riparian and bioregenerative habitats; landscape design for developers of multi-family residential town homes; and landscape design for commercial and industrial properties, institutional facilities including healthcare and campus facilities.
“In any career, you can go as far and as high as you can when you want to achieve and make that difference!” says Donna. “Nursing taught me how to delegate, lead, give and sacrifice. The parts of you that make up the nurse carry through everything you do – mother, wife, volunteer, intern landscape architect- it never leaves you, no matter where your life might lead.” “The human body and nature are parallel to each other” she says, “healing the human body and healing landscapes are intertwined. Taking those attributes, talents, and passion and putting them into a profession, that’s Landscape Architecture!”