Member Profiles









Biomed Wizards Take Pride in Their Work (Challenger Fall 2014)

By Kim Adonyi,
HSAA Communications

Biomeds get the job done. “That’s our motto,” says Alex Sackiw, a retiring biomedical equipment technologist II at the University of Alberta Hospital. He and a group of biomed co-workers are all smiles as they nod in agreement. If it needs to be fixed, needs to be altered – or even if it needs to be created – that’s what the biomeds do.

The pride in their work shows as they excitedly show off the many projects and various types of highly technical and specialized equipment they work on regularly.

“Our job is to fix, upgrade and maintain the hospital’s medical equipment. If we don’t do our job, people could die,” cautions Alex. “A patient’s safety is utmost – we’ll do anything to protect the patients.” A simple static charge can render some medical apparatus inoperative – a great reason to have people who know the equipment doing the repair and maintenance work.

Alex has a small office filled with electrical equipment. Behind a sliding door he also has multiple monitors showing the heart-rate patterns of several patients.

“I watch the monitors and if anything seems off, if there is an irregular pattern, I ask the nurse to check on the patient to see if it is a problem with the equipment or a health concern for the patient.”

There have been instances where a faulty cord or plug can be the problem with an entire piece of equipment. Many times though, that piece of equipment is in demand or the room with the problematic plug is constantly in use. It is a delicate juggling act to keep pace with a busy hospital.

Alex has been a biomed for more than 30 years and says the job has morphed over that time. “Biomeds manage medical, therapeutic and diagnostic equipment in the hospital, everything from pumps, monitors, dialysis equipment, X-rays and ultrasounds – generally speaking, all the electrical stuff. We fix it, we alter it to work or we can even build it, but some of the responsibility and flexibility is diminishing as they hire new people.”

One of Alex’s early achievements was the improvement of the transport incubators to hold up to Canadian weather.

“The standard incubators had trouble staying warm while EMS were waiting for aircraft to transport patients. I re-worked the incubator so it would stay warm in an Alberta winter. Since then, one of the other biomeds has improved the incubator yet again.”

Along with providing the hospital with solutions, Alex and his wife, a dental assistant, have also volunteered in Peru through Kindness in Action. “She would do the medical side and I would be the equipment specialist. It was great but hard work. People would say I looked tired after coming back from vacation, but that’s because it wasn’t really a vacation.”

People may not know it, but the biomed job is essential to the smooth workings of any hospital, but for one the size of the University of Alberta, the position is crucial.
Biomeds are involved in everything from the design of operating rooms to equipment purchasing to the crafting of specialty equipment for patients.

“We read blue prints, we are electricians, mechanics, machinists, we even have our own metal shop to create and design equipment in. We are in constant contact with doctors and nurses and have been liaisons between the medical staff and equipment vendors.”

It’s a vital position.

Alex was introduced to the job by chance while teaching ballroom dancing to a hematology technologist.

“She told me about the job and I was immediately interested. I was already working for the U of A building teaching aids, I had university education in biology and mechanics, so this sounded very interesting.”

The nice thing about being a biomed is that the position can be specialized to what you want it to be.

Alex says: “The field is so vast. You can work in a hospital and do the general maintenance and repair work or you can create pieces in the metal shop, you can specialize in OR or neonatal. It’s all a matter of what you want the job to be.

“But the best part of the job is the people – nothing gives you more satisfaction than when someone is genuinely thankful for what you have done for them. No award or recognition can give you the same feeling.”

The University of Alberta Hospital alone has more than 30 biomeds on site without a shortage in work – a testament to how important the job is.

“I would recommend to anyone interested in this job to get into it – after 31 years it is still the best job I’ve ever had. I still love it.”

Staying alive (and healthy) (Challenger Fall 2013)

When cancer claimed a loved one, Sarah O’Hara devoted her career to helping others live better

By Terry Inigo-Jones,
HSAA Communications

Sarah O’Hara’s life changed when she lost a loved family member to cancer.

“We lost Paul (father-in-law) in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2008. To see my husband’s family lose him, and to see his own father outlive him, was more than I could accept. It wasn’t long after the funeral that I made a personal vow to commit myself to a career of health promotion and the prevention and management of chronic disease,” the HSAA member says in the book she co-authored this year, Inspire Me Well.

O’Hara became a Registered Dietitian, but her commitment to health goes beyond her work. She joined Lisa Bélanger, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta (U of A) and a certified exercise physiologist, to write the book, which is sub-titled Finding Motivation to Take Control of Your Health.

As its title suggest, the book aims to inspire readers to change their lives by telling stories about people who have transformed their lives.

They include a mother who became a triathlete after her son was diagnosed with blood cancer; a woman who overcame obesity that was the result of childhood sexual abuse to become fit and a fundraiser for a ranch to help other child-abuse victims; and an avid skater who was told she’d never take to the ice again and who lost the sight in one eye thanks to multiple sclerosis, but refused to give up her vision of leading an active life.

These are just a few of the inspirational people found in the book, but the authors offer much more. Each uses her own expertise in exercise and diet to explain the science of staying healthy in easy-to-understand terms and provide genuinely helpful tips in how to make and maintain a change in lifestyle.

Challenger spoke to O’Hara about her vocation as a health-care professional and her work as an inspiring author.

What made you choose Registered Dietitian as a career?

My husband and I moved to Edmonton in 2007… I had a science degree from the University of New Brunswick, but no real career to speak of yet. I had decided to go back to school, and started looking into programs at the U of A. As soon as I saw that they offered a nutrition program with an accredited dietetic internship (only a handful of universities in Canada offer this option), I knew that this was the path for me. I’ve always been very interested in food, from both a cooking perspective and a health perspective. The program offered just what I was looking for: a way to combine a strong personal interest with a career opportunity that allows me to help others every day.

In the book, you talk about your father-in-law’s illness and how it led to a vow to embark on a career of health promotion. Did his illness act as a wakeup call about health risks?

Definitely, although not right away. It wasn’t until his recurrence of cancer, when he was more visibly ill, that it hit home for me. There were definitely genetic factors working against him as there is a strong family history of bowel cancers, but I knew that other controllable factors also determine whether that risk leads to development of disease. 

Tell me about how this incident shaped your life and career path?

I remember when I was starting in the nutrition program, my father-in-law asked me … whether I could review research to see what the best diet would be for cancer survivors. It still breaks my heart to think that he was probably feeling a lack of support that I hear so many survivors feel.… It really wasn’t until after he passed that I began to experience clarity about how what we eat, staying active and managing stress in our lives will influence our ability to live healthily in the long term. I try to bring this motivation to my own daily life in the choices I make and encourage my patients to do the same.

Did you feel that his life might have been prolonged if he had been encouraged or educated to make different choices earlier?

Paul was a very intelligent man and, like so many of us, he knew which foods were healthy and that exercise was important. He even retired from his corporate job in his 40s because he decided the stress and lack of work/life balance weren’t worth the toll it was taking on his health and family life. In his case, like many others I see, I don’t think it’s necessarily about a lack of education. I think it’s about translating knowledge into action and maintaining one’s dedication to living a lifestyle that is conducive to promoting long-term health. This means going against what’s been made easiest for us today. It’s easiest to eat highly processed, boxed meals. It’s easiest to take the elevator instead of the stairs. It’s easiest to watch TV all evening instead of going for a walk. It takes a strong social support network and daily renewal of dedication to living a healthy lifestyle in order to minimize risk of ill health.

You say in the book that his death was not in vain. Can you tell me how other family members have changed their lives as a result of his illness?

My husband is a great example of harnessing his motivation to minimize his own future risk. He really took a step back and assessed the situation, realizing that while there is this strong family history, there is also a lot he can do now to help mitigate his own risk. He had always been an active kid, but during university had begun to neglect his diet and exercise. He’s been very proactive since his father’s death. He has had a preliminary colonoscopy to establish a baseline and ensure that there were no early signs of illness already. He’s also making better food choices and has worked his way back up to being very active with running, cycling, swimming and even a bit of yoga now and again.

My mother-in-law is also very conscientious about her intake and activity and has a very clear mindset about how her daily actions influence her health and well-being. She has also been a volunteer for the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada, acting as an advocate for early screening in adults over 50 (or younger if there is a strong family history).

It seems like your career is much more of a vocation than a job. Is that true?

Yes, that’s exactly how I would describe it. My interest in food and nutrition has evolved into a passion for this work that I know will be lifelong. The more experience I gain as a dietitian, the stronger my resolve becomes for helping others to learn about how their daily food choices can influence their health and the health of their families and friends.

What does it mean to you to be making a difference in people’s lives every day?

The feeling of making a difference is beyond compare. I feel so fortunate to work primarily with highly motivated individuals and families. Knowing that even one tip or suggestion I’ve given might be passed on to that patient’s family or friends as well gives me the feeling that I’m improving the bigger picture for both my patients as well as people I’ll never even meet.

What inspired you to join Lisa Bélanger in writing Inspire Me Well?

Lisa is absolutely the biggest dreamer I’ve ever known. Her passion for what she does and her ambitions in life are so inspiring to me. How can you not get on board with a project being spearheaded by someone like that? The way she described her vision of the book had me on board right away.

What has been the reaction to the book? Is it selling well and where can it be bought?

We have had a really wonderful response … A family member described the feeling she got while reading it as “like sitting down and chatting about health with a good friend,” which I took to be a huge compliment. Most people will have one or two stories that really resonate for them, which is fantastic. The whole point of the project for us was to try to inspire others before some sort of health crisis occurs and for people to feel connected to the book as a source of inspiration for living well in the long term. The book is available in-store at many Chapters/Indigo locations and at Audreys Books in Edmonton, and online through and Amazon.

Could you see yourself doing anything else for a living? If so, what?

I really feel as though I’ve found my calling. What I love about my profession is the variability in workplace settings. I would be thrilled to some day work in policy development, to help shape the environment in which we live to becoming an easier place to make healthy choices.

Is it hard to eat well all the time? And to exercise well?

Absolutely. We have become a society of shortcuts, where it’s easier to be unhealthy than it is to live healthy and even as a dietitian I’m not immune to my surroundings. It’s a balancing act, and I don’t claim to eat perfectly healthy at every meal or exercise every day of the week. But I regularly renew my conscious effort to eat well most of the time and incorporate activity that will make me sweat several days per week. It certainly helps that I love to cook from scratch, and that my husband places a strong value in health and athleticism. Social support and common values to living well are hugely important factors in maintaining our healthy lifestyle.

If you were able to say one thing that would inspire people to be proactive about their health, what would it be?

Make a list of everything you’ve ever dreamed about doing. If you’re anything like me, that list is going to be pretty long. Surviving to a certain age doesn’t necessarily indicate you will have a high quality of life. I don’t want to visit Spain when I’m 70 and not be able to do a walking tour because I’m physically unable. Whether you’ve got just a short way to go or have a long road ahead to making a healthy lifestyle one that you can manage for the long term, keep that list in mind. We only get one life, in one body. Remember that the seemingly small decisions about how you fuel and exercise that body will add up in the long run. It won’t always be easy, but you’re worth it!