Sally was born in England while her father, Gordon R. Slemon was completing his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Imperial College in London. The family relocated back to Canada when she was two, first to Nova Scotia and then to Toronto, where her father went on to become Dean at University of Toronto. Attending high school at Don Mills Collegiate, she was involved in music, athletics, and was captain of the cheerleading team in her time. By the time she graduated, she was more interested in protest movements than advanced education and, as she says, “without much thoughtful intention” found herself enrolled in the Atkinson School of Nursing at Toronto Western Hospital— more as a means of leaving home and becoming independently employable quickly than because she understood anything about nursing. However, somehow the nursing bug took hold and she has never looked back.
After a few years of staff nursing on a medical unit at Sunnybrook Hospital (which was memorable for her exposure to the stories of the World War I veterans it served), and psychiatric nursing at North York General Hospital, Sally moved west in what was expected to be a one-year sojourn in Vancouver, taking general Arts courses at UBC. However, only a few weeks into indulging in a full set of coursework (Psychology, English, History, and Spanish) she realised that a single year at university would not be enough to satisfy her newly discovered learning needs and, thinking it a more practical way to justify hanging out at the university, sought out the opportunities in UBC Nursing’s “Returning RN” program. At that time, diploma-prepared RNs could be admitted into the last two years (plus a “bridging” summer) of the four-year BSN program. In addition to her studies, during this period Sally was actively involved in campus politics, playing a leadership role in the AMS Women’s Centre and holding an Executive Office in UBC’s Student Administrative Council.
Graduating with her BSN in 1979, Sally took a work-study opportunity for the opportunity, cataloguing learning resources in the School’s skills lab. By that September found herself hired as a 12-month Lecturer, teaching mental health as part of “the second year team,” until she started the MSN program full time two years later. That program revolutionized her ideas about research, which to that point she had assumed was largely irrelevant to the nursing professional and educational enterprise.
On completion of the MSN, she was formally appointed as a tenure track Instructor II, and promoted to Assistant Professor in 1985. However, during the mid-1980s, UBC had a massive budget cut, with the loss of a number of faculty positions across all disciplines. Realizing her tenure track position might not be secure, even if she did happen to make the grade for tenure, Sally explored creative possibilities for doctoral study. She wanted to ensure a significant focus on nursing, although nursing PhD programs did not yet exist in Canada, but she did not want to leave UBC, Vancouver, or her ongoing funded research program. Through various connections, she learned of the Interdisciplinary External Degree Doctoral Program through Union Institute for Advanced Studies in Cincinnati, Ohio—which was at that time the only accredited external degree doctoral program in the US. Building a fabulous supervisory committee comprised of two of their core faculty (sociologist Hal Kirshbaum and nursing scholar Penny MacElveen-Hoehn) as well as respected external nursing faculty committee members from University of California, San Francisco (Juliene Lipson) and University of Washington (Marcie Catanzaro), Sally was able to design an individualized program of study in nursing philosophy, qualitative methodology, sociology and anthropology, including culture and social organizational theorizing. Conducting her program concurrently with her teaching, and taking full advantage of a 12-month study leave from UBC, she graduated with her PhD in 1990. Her dissertation research was ultimately published in book form [Negotiating Health Care: The Social Context of Chronic Illness, Sage, 1993].
Back in her full-time faculty position (now as tenured Associate Professor) at UBC, Sally was at the right place at the right time when it came to launching the new Nursing PhD program in 1991. To her delight, she was offered the opportunity to develop and teach the Philosophy of Nursing Science courses, which she did in various configurations for most of the next 25 years. This opportunity to actively engage in the philosophical inquiry and academic development of some of our discipline’s finest scholars over a generation was a powerful force in her own evolving scholarship and her enduring fascination with the ideas that shape the discipline. Many of her important theoretical and philosophical publications are coauthored with nurse scholars who were students in those courses, and grew out of ideas that began as lively seminar debates. It has been a source of joy to follow the careers of the many Canadian and international practice and academic leaders who passed through the UBC Nursing doctoral program over its early decades.
Promoted to Professor in 1997, Sally went on to hold various leadership positions in the School, including Graduate Advisor, PhD Program Coordinator, Associate Director for Research and Graduate Programs and, in January of 2002 became Director of the School – a role she held until December of 2010. She thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to try to fill the very large shoes of the illustrious group of former Directors, and to use the position to showcase the marvelous work being done by the School’s faculty, students, alumni and partners. Sally was subsequently appointed Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the UBC Faculty of Applied Science in 2012 – a position that has allowed her to support the School at the administrative level and also preserves at least half of her time so that she can remain solidly grounded in School of Nursing educational and scholarly priorities.
Sally has made significant contributions to clinical knowledge generation and translation on several fronts. She explains:
My early work was in chronic illness experience, with a particular focus on what we can learn from patterns in how people with chronic conditions navigate our health care systems and try to work out how to manage lives that are complicated by having ongoing health challenges. What I learned from years of engaging with patients and family caregivers is that we were setting up systems of care from the perspective of biomedical management rather than the realities of how patients live their lives. This created a predictable set of barriers to access, a mismatch between what was on offer and what patients really needed to live their lives as well as possible with incurable conditions. We had created these rather rigid models of delivering standardized health care on the basis of outdated ideas about ignorant patients and expert clinicians, rather than capitalizing on the expertise that exists when you have spent years working out how best to manage your own complex condition. Interestingly, many of the ideas that arose from this early research are gradually finding their way into current thinking, and it has now become self-evident that patient perspectives actually matter, and that quality of life constitutes much more than following medical orders. Today, we have a different public dialogue in which there is a more coherent recognition that the older style of health care delivery was creating a costly, ineffective, and in some instance highly problematic environment in which to cope with chronic diseases. It has been wonderful to watch the field evolve (slowly), and to hope that in some small measure the work of nurse researchers challenging the status quo may have played a part in that.
Although communication had always been a central focus of the chronic illness work I was doing, in the early years there was not much receptivity to how new knowledge could be applied. Because of that, I expanded my focus to include cancer care (some of which was becoming chronic), as a place where there was wider recognition of the power of clinical communication – both to do harm, and also for healing. Further, there was a strong and well-coordinated nursing community within cancer care with a strong commitment to the human component of care delivery and a passion for putting new insights into action. For many years, I worked with a vibrant interprofessional team on a range of aspects of communication in cancer care, again focusing on what can be learned from the patient perspective. Some of these studies challenged existing assumptions about how best to communicate such issues as probability calculations and bad news. Other studies documented the very real harms that could be visited on patients when systems of care failed to recognize high quality communication as a matter of patient safety and effective care delivery. The ideas arising from this program of research found their way into training of oncology and palliative care residents in the cancer care system, as well as public dialogues in such formats as “philosopher’s cafés” in Vancouver pubs and community groups. From this program of research, an extensive database was generated that continues to support new findings in relation to such issues as equity concerns in diverse populations and optimal approaches to cancer survivorship care.
As Medical Assistance in Dying became available to Canadians in 2016, it immediately became apparent to Sally that nurses would play a pivotal role in this context, and that much of that role would be enacted within their communication with patients, including those with cancer and other chronic conditions. With Dr. Barb Pesut, formerly one of those UBC nursing doctoral students and now a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Health, Ethics and Diversity at UBC Okanagan School of Nursing, Sally has been privileged to be part of the vanguard of exploring the nursing implications of this evolving legislative change. In addition, at this later stage of her research career, she has enjoyed a wide range of Canadian and international research collaborations, and continues to be fascinated by matters at the intersection of how we set up systems and how patients experience what our systems have to offer. She finds that there is no end to the important clinical questions related to the care of those with chronic and life-limiting conditions still to be asked.
Because she had been so inspired by the amazing cadre of nurse theorists on faculty during the time of her MSN program and early faculty career, Sally continued to have a strand of her scholarly work in the advancement of the ideas that shape our discipline. She has been actively involved in the international Nursing Philosophy community, and since 2011 has been Editor-in-Chief for the scholarly journal Nursing Inquiry, which specializes in critical reflections on nursing and health care. In addition, throughout her career, Sally has also been at the forefront of qualitative research development and application.
When I first entered my MSN program, I had no idea that research methods could actually be interesting. However, throughout my years of substantive clinical research I have been privileged to play a role in the evolution of research methods to integrate patient experience and health care consumer perspectives into our evolving evidence-based policy processes and into our clinical practice wisdom. I have worked with a wide range of qualitative methods and scholarly communities, and have been fortunate enough to have contributed significant innovations to the methodological field – specifically working out ways to capitalize on the wonderful technique of qualitative methods originally designed for use in the social sciences and applying them to the unique and distinctive knowledge-generation needs of the applied and practice disciplines. The general approach I have developed – known as “Interpretive Description” – has been widely adopted locally, nationally, and internationally. And by far the greatest joy in having developed the method is that I have the opportunity to emancipate nursing scholars from the constraints of the conventional ‘rule structures’ of methods designed for other purposes and to put their nursing intelligence to good use in the design of studies that reflect nursing thinking, nursing logic, and nursing applications.
Sally has also played an active role in nursing and health policy work through her engagement with various organizations over the years. Among the Boards she has chaired are the BC Cancer Agency, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and she has served as a Board Director for the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Provincially, she was a founding member of the Association of Registered Nurses of BC and the Coalition of BC Nursing Associations, and remains actively engaged on the Board of the newly formed (2018) provincial professional association Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of BC, as well as its RN Council.
Sally has been recognized for the distinctive contributions she has made to nursing over the course of her career at UBC in several ways. She was among the first nurses elected into the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences when it was formed in 2005, and among the first Canadian nurses elected into the American Academy of Nursing (2011) when it opened fellowship to international candidates. In 2009 she was named one of Canada’s “Top 100 Most Powerful Women” by the Women’s Executive Network, and in 2013 was awarded the Ethel Johns Award for distinguished service to nursing education in Canada from the Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing. She has received two honorary doctorates (Queens University 2013; Université Laval 2017), and was inducted into the Sigma Theta Tau Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame in 2017. Most recently (2018) she was recognized with the Jeanne Mance Award, the Canadian Nurses Association’s highest honour.
From Sally’s perspective:
UBC School of Nursing has been my continuous professional and academic home since I first wandered into its halls as a prospective student in 1977 – over 40 years ago. I cannot imagine a more wonderful community within which to have had a nursing career. UBC has supported me in the various steps of career progress, provided a rich interdisciplinary academic community within which to learn and grow, and been a base from which I could take risks in leadership and advocacy on behalf of the nursing profession, both in BC as well as in the wider world. Most importantly, it has been a nursing community in which I have had the opportunity to interact and work with the finest minds of our generation in nursing – the students at all levels who have challenged us to do more and better, and the colleagues who have been a relentless source of inspiration and courage. Anything I have accomplished has been a result of the honour and privilege of being part of this remarkable UBC School of Nursing community, and I am immensely grateful to have been part of it.