McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Nursing graduate trumps tragedy

Published: June 11, 2010
Karen Vanscoy
Karen Vanscoy, member of the dean's honour list and 2010 Bachelor of Science (nursing) graduate.

Courage will trump tragedy when Karen Vanscoy receives her nursing degree from McMaster University during convocation ceremonies at Hamilton Place today.

A member of the dean's honour list, Vanscoy, 44, has travelled a long, remarkable road to earn her Bachelor of Science nursing degree (BScN), undertaking part-time studies for seven years while holding down various jobs — most recently as case manager with the Hamilton Program for Schizophrenia (HPS).

The eldest of nine children and a rebellious teenager who struggled with high school, she was pregnant at 16 with her daughter, Jasmine, then left school and married at 19. By 21, she was pregnant again with her son, Jordan, and separated from her husband. Soon after, Jordan was diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder related to autism.

To support herself and her children, she enrolled in a program for nursing assistants, graduating top of her class. Hired to work at the former Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital, she found the job "ignited" an interest in mental health. While there, she plugged away at college courses, eventually working in soup kitchens and shelters for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Niagara where she started its first out-of-the-cold program for the homeless.

One evening, while helping a client move, a 17-year-old teenager with a stolen handgun shot Jasmine, then 14, in the head in their home, killing her. The boy was the friend of a girl Jasmine had befriended. With Jasmine's death, Vanscoy's passion for her job evaporated.

"Prior to Jasmine dying, I had purchased a home, had a successful career and both children were doing well," she said. "I felt everything was taken away from me and I was very angry with the world.  I had spent so much time and energy helping other people, and when I was helping someone else, someone took my daughter's life."

Feeling lost, Vanscoy left mental health nursing and took a job as an educational assistant working in a high school with teenagers with developmental disabilities. Laid off work during summer holidays, she used her unemployment insurance to take a small business fundamentals course, and founded her own "relatively successful" business, the Niagara Tour Company.

To supplement her income, she returned to work in St. Joseph Healthcare's schizophrenia program and for the first time in a long while felt at home. "I realized this is where I wanted to be, helping people with serious mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia."

In 2003, she entered McMaster's School of Nursing, working part-time at St. Joseph's and part-time at the Hamilton Program for Schizophrenia (HPS). Finding it difficult to manage two jobs and school, she was fortunately offered a full-time position at HPS which gave her the flexibility she needed to fit in university studies.

After Jasmine's death, Vanscoy became a strong advocate for gun control and victims' rights. For more than 10 years she has belonged to the Coalition for Gun Control and CAVEAT (Canadians Against Violence Everywhere Advocating for Its Termination), joining them in Ottawa two weeks ago to protest Bill C-391 which ends the requirement to register seven million non-restricted rifles and shotguns.

Each year Vanscoy has been at McMaster she has won university scholarship awards. She is also the recipient of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) student award.

As convocation has become closer, she has been getting more and more excited "because I realize I have done it — and done it well."

Convocation ceremonies for 409 graduates of the McMaster University, Conestoga and Mohawk Colleges nursing programs as well as 108 graduates in medical radiation sciences takes place Friday, June 11 at Hamilton Place.

Honorary Doctor of Science degrees are to be awarded to Dr. Sheila Cameron, professor of nursing at the University of Windsor, a dedicated nurse who has set an example for nursing students for four decades and researcher specializing in the recruitment and retention of nurses, and Ernest Edmonds, education consultant with the Ontario Association of Medical Radiation Technologists. Dr. Cameron will deliver the convocation address.

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