Karen Siermachesky knows what’s like to be on either side of the health care equation. She’s been a Registered Nurse for 30 years – 29 of those spent in Public Health. And she’s a breast cancer survivor.

Siermachesky, who works out of the Humboldt District Health Complex, is an advocate for the flu shot, and for the Government of Saskatchewan’s new Immunize or Mask policy for health care workers because of her work and because of her experience using the health care system.

“Public health nurses look at health promotion and prevention of disease, and it’s widely known and proven that immunizations are the most effective way of preventing communicable diseases,” she said.

In 2011, Siermachesky was diagnosed with breast cancer, and part of her treatment was chemotherapy. Though it effectively treated her cancer, it also destroyed her immune system temporarily, making her a member of the “vulnerable population” – those at higher risk of contracting influenza and suffering serious complications of the disease including death. Flu shots in the rest of the population protect these people.

Nurse Karen Siermachesky receives a flu shot.

Karen Siermachesky, a Public Health nurse and breast cancer survivor, strongly believes in flu shots and Saskatchewan’s new Immunize or Mask policy. She received her flu shot on October 14.

“Really, anyone we are caring for in the health care system is part of that vulnerable population,” she said. “If they were healthy, they wouldn’t be in the hospital, in long-term care, seeking physiotherapy or other services. Any time someone has to access health care, they are vulnerable.”

Siermachesky was extremely vigilant about guarding herself from the flu while she was undergoing cancer  treatments.

“I had no immune system to fend off any kind of disease,” she stated. “But I had control in my home – those who hadn’t had a flu shot were not allowed in. And I had control over where I went – I avoided large crowds of people including church, malls and functions. The only place I felt I had no control was when I went into a health-care facility.”

Though a nurse herself, as a patient, Siermachesky didn’t feel comfortable asking staff providing her with care if they had had a flu shot, and so she was left wondering and worried. “I felt I was putting myself at risk by accessing services,” she noted. “Had I been around anyone who was infectious with the flu, they could have killed me.”

She calls the new Immunize or Mask policy “forward-thinking.”  According to the policy, those health-are staff who have had a flu shot will have a sticker on their name badge indicating that they have been immunized; those who have not will be required to wear a mask in patient care areas – both visual cues to those receiving care. The policy goes into effect once flu season is officially declared by Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer, usually in late November.

Siermachesky will be encouraging her clients to look for stickers on the name tags of health care workers they encounter, and if they don’t have one and aren’t wearing a mask, to ask about it.

“It’s all about client-centred care,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re keeping those who are vulnerable as safe as we possibly can. Staff have an option – they can mask or immunize. As people working in health care, we have a responsibility for those we care for. This is one way of ensuring they are staying as healthy as possible.”

The new policy will also help protect the families of health care workers, Siermachesky feels, as it will prevent them from taking influenza home.