June 15, 2018 | Alumni
Despite PTSD, former military nurse forges new path with U of T degree in health informatics
By Rebecca Biason
“At the very start of my program, completing it seemed impossible to me," says Andrew Lo. He graduates on June 21 (photo courtesy of Andrew Lo)
After 18 years of service as a military nurse, Andrew Lo (MHI 2018) suddenly found himself faced with the reality of readjusting to the pace of civilian life. He had been recently diagnosed with PTSD and chronic pain, and was unsure what to do next.
A friend, a graduate of U of T's Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, encouraged him to consider applying to graduate school. With a little a research, Lo came across IHPME’s Master of Health Informatics Program.
“I had always wanted to pursue a graduate degree, but my military career never allowed me to follow that path,” said Lo.
During his time in the military, Lo had undertaken a series of health informatics related projects including in 2011-12 where he provided leadership to his care delivery unit (CDU) as they transitioned from paper charts to electronic medical records. He also managed his unit’s rollout of a new module of the Canadian Forces Health Information System, helping to transform the way patients were scheduled and the way their medical charts were detailed electronically.
Despite his experience, it was difficult for Lo to return to the world of academia after almost 10 years away. The last time he had been in school as an undergraduate student, the internet had only just been emerging. Coupled with having to learn new tools that were not available when he was in school like Google Docs, Lucidcharts and Slack, Lo was also tasked with managing his mental health and chronic pain, making the completion of his program seem insurmountable at the start.
“The noise pollution in Toronto was a constant trigger for my PTSD, making it unbearable sometimes to even leave my residence,” said Lo.
Access to mental health services in Toronto also proved to be a challenge, and Lo was not able to see someone about his PTSD until the last four months of his program. Yet, Lo persevered.
“The faculty and the School were very supportive in terms of helping me manage both my mental illness and physical injuries,” said Lo. “I knew that I did not want to be defined by my illness or injuries.”
His adaptive and resilient attitude is something that Lo attributes to his training and time in the military. Just out of high school at the age of 18, Lo decided to enter the Canadian Reserves after witnessing one of his close friends sign-up. It was a decision that set the course for a truly interesting career path that included numerous roles, from Operations and Training Officer, to Primary Care and Patient Liaison Nurse.
“As a military nurse you must be a jack of all trades,” said Lo, “one day you may be on the surgical floor maintaining your clinical skills while on another you may be needed to manage the immunization clinic for the national capital region serving all personnel from the Governor General to the Chief of Defence Staff.”
For Lo, one of the most challenging experiences in the military was his time as a Patient Liaison Nurse. In 2014, Canada had officially ended its operations in Afghanistan and Lo was responsible for coordinating the care and repatriation of soldiers returning to Ottawa. Many had been involved in 2008’s Operation Medusa, a Canadian-led offensive and one of NATO’s largest land battles at the time.
Part of his role involved casualty repatriation, which included coordinating with receiving hospitals and ambulance services, as well as arranging accommodations for casualties’ families. During these encounters, Lo would often end up listening to the soldiers as they shared their experiences of their time in Afghanistan.
“Many of these stories were quite horrific and heart breaking, some of them suffered from physical injuries which included missing limbs,” said Lo. “.Many suffered from psychological injuries after witnessing the death or injuries of their comrades who as a result of their experiences, had attempted or committed suicide.”
It wasn’t long before the weight of these stories and the heavy demands of his role began to catch up to him.
“It sounds cliché, but when I was taking care of my patients their needs were more important than my own personal feelings,” he said. “We have a saying in the military, ‘stay mission focused and carry on,’ and that is what I did to provide the best care for my patients and their families.”
“At the very start of my program, completing it seemed impossible to me,” said Lo, “But I learned to respect my limitations and came to recognize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.”
Now, as a graduate, Lo is looking forward to applying his newly acquired skills, and is hoping to continue on a new career path. “I do see myself returning to the health care field in the future, and I’m confident I now have the skills to be successful wherever I go.”