Feeling No Pain

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Jeff Kirk

York did not have a nursing program when Kathy Popovski (BA ’95) first came to the Keele Campus as an undergraduate in the 1980s.

The closest thing the University had at the time to help her realize her goal of becoming an advanced practice nurse was Health Studies, a multi-faceted program offered through the School of Health Policy & Management. 

Popovski, who already had a nursing diploma from Ryerson University, enrolled anyway, taking eight years to complete the three-year degree, mainly because she did it part time while holding down nursing jobs at two major city hospitals. 

She took even longer with the master’s in nursing she took at the University of Toronto, again because she did it while working full time in health care. 

“For five years of my life,” she says, “I worked straight weekends, doing 12-hour shifts, and studied and went to class during the week.”

But you hardly need to ask if it was worth it. 

Today a nurse practitioner, one of her profession’s highest rankings, Popovski works in the acute pain division of St. Michael’s Hospital, a leading Toronto trauma facility. 

Pain is her specialty for the simple reason she has a low tolerance for it. 

“I am the one who asks the dentist to put me under even for a filling,” she says. “I am so sensitive to pain, not just in myself but in others. I really want to make the pain go away.” 

What she has learned about managing pain during a 35-year nursing career she learned mostly first-hand, starting with babies in pediatric care and proceeding to adults in hospital burn units. 

At St. Mike’s, where she has been employed since 2011, Popovski now uses that experience to treat patients – approximately 3,000 a year – whose pain comes from a variety of causes, surgery for instance, or a violent attack. Gang war victims are unfortunately a common occurrence at a downtown hospital like hers. Popovski has seen it all.  

In an office shared with other members of the hospital’s collaborative pain management team, and certainly looking more funky than pharmaceutical in patterned blue trousers, a magenta shirt the colour of her hair and lace-up bronze platform trainers (her version of sensible shoes), she reflects on some of the more extreme cases to have come her way. 

Top of list is the new mother who suffered a life-altering injury when dragged under the wheels of a garbage truck – a heartbreaking story. And then there’s the young man who suffered extensive burns to almost every inch of his body because of an industrial accident. His pain, she recalls, was terrible. 

“I remember the burn victim especially because his sister told me he liked music and it gave me the idea to play his favourite songs while cleaning his wounds,” says Popovski, known for combining textbook learning with empathy and practical experience on the job. 

“I noticed that this calmed him a great deal, it helped with his healing and it made me realize the importance of taking a multimodal approach to treating acute pain, not just with analgesics but with alternative therapies, including music and movement.”  

Popovski is big on non-opioid alternatives, especially since much of the developed world has become enmeshed in a growing opioid epidemic. She feels a keen sense of responsibility to try and right a wrong that she believes she and other members of the medical profession helped create by trusting pharmaceutical company claims that fentanyl and other high-potency synthetic opioids were not addictive. 

“I prescribed them myself,” Popovski says. “I actually told patients that there was no harm in taking them.” She knows differently now. These new narcotics can be extremely addictive and so must be handled with care. Which is where her expertise as a nurse practitioner comes in. 

“Opioids are one of the most effective ways to relieve pain, along with nerve blocks, injections that interfere with pain receptors in the body, and regional analgesia,” she says. “But there can’t be an overreliance. It’s important to find new ways to ease a patient’s suffering.”  

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