Women on the COVID Front Lines: Karen Reader, Paramedic, Unit Chief and Community Paramedicine Mentor

In honour of International Women’s Day, and in partnership with the BC Gender Equity Office, I’m sharing Women on the COVID Front Lines, profiles of women in British Columbia working to serve the needs of their communities through the pandemic.

As Unit Chief for Station 330 in Princeton, and as a Community Paramedicine Mentor, Karen Reader is used to tackling a diverse range of tasks in a day. Not only is she a paramedic practitioner, she’s responsible for the day-to-day operations of an ambulance station, including staffing, scheduling, maintenance, community awareness and training. She also supports the growing Community Paramedicine program, helping Community Paramedics with onboarding, orientation, and field support once they’re deployed to British Columbia’s rural and remote communities.

With the rise of COVID-19, however, came a host of new hurdles, some with unexpected emotional tolls: “It’s an ongoing struggle to tell families members they can’t accompany their loved ones or be with them in the hospital,” Karen says, “I look forward to the time when we can go back to providing not just emergency medical care, but to assist with the family as well.” Women tend to be natural caregivers, and this part of the job strikes Karen as something that has particularly affected women in this service during the pandemic.

With a career that started in fire services, Karen has always enjoyed what may be considered non-traditional roles. “I like doing things that are unexpected,” Karen explains, expressing that if she had any advice for her younger self, it would be to “start sooner and be bold.” Meanwhile, present-day Karen is forging ahead providing leadership in unprecedented times. She describes the direct impact on the lives of her patients as incredibly rewarding, but she’s also witnessed increased strain on her staff and peers.

As a leader in her unit, Karen has to stay on top of the constant changes that come with COVID-19. Vigilance is required in the face of shifting safety protocols—even a simple task like reporting to work becomes complex when social distancing and limited workplace capacity are involved. The past year has seen Karen and her staff follow the dance of ever evolving practices and procedures, all while providing seamless care to those who urgently need them at work and home. Training ground to a halt, prompting staffing challenges across the province, and a growing, intimidating stack of administrative tasks related to onboarding at the station has become daunting. It’s no surprise Karen’s wish list for post-pandemic improvements include addressing the challenges of staffing and providing predictability in the live of paramedics throughout British Columbia.

Karen is committed to supporting her staff throughout it all. Despite the tough times, she hopes her staff are inspired to love what they do and be their best as professionals. While she’s observed barriers for women in respect to advancement, wage parity and occasionally in terms of recognition for equal efforts and responsibilities in a role, she’s always felt like an equal among her peers.

Going back to her younger self, Karen has the following wisdom to prepare that person for such a dynamic role: “Value change and embrace the learning that comes from it.” In a year of unpredictability, this advice rings truer than ever. Karen, however, is ready to take on whatever comes next.