Beth Strachan: first-aid trainer of a generation of workers
When a family member suffers a heart attack or stroke, a co-worker is hurt in an industrial accident, or a car crashes on the road in front of us, we’re all grateful for first-aid skills.
Yes, the 911 call will bring the paramedics and firefighters racing in to help, but sometimes it’s the actions of those on the scene at the time of the incident, bystanders trained in first aid, that save lives.
Beth Strachan has been helping train those first responders through the University of the Fraser Valley’s Continuing Studies department since 1987. It was practically a full-time job for Beth. She taught many of the courses, and also coordinated and planned the training.
Now, after 26 years, Beth is hanging up her safety jacket and giving mouth-to-mouth to her last Resusci Annie mannequin. Her heart is still in first aid, but her knees are starting to complain about the constant bending and crouching, and there are 40th anniversary festivities and grandchildren visits for her and husband Don to think about.
And to think she almost didn’t become a first aid instructor at all.
She got into first aid while working in a Langley machine shop in the 1980s.
“They needed an attendant and my boss suggested I take the course. It was an extremely hard course and I was afraid that I might not pass, but I found out that I really enjoyed learning about first aid. I already knew that I loved teaching because I’d taught Sunday school, so I thought I’d try teaching first aid, although I found the idea of teaching adults intimidating.”
But the first time she approached the Workers’ Compensation Course about taking first-aid instructor training, she was turned down.
This did a bit of a number on her self-esteem, which had taken her a long time to build up.
“I had a bit of a pity party for myself, attended by one, and then I said, ‘Beth, what are we going to do now?’ I decided to join Toastmasters to improve my speaking and presentation skills, and that really helped me.”
The idea of standing up in front of a class of adults and presenting course material was intimidating beyond belief at first for Beth.
“Being an instructor was hard for me. It’s a miracle that I became one at all. I used to stutter badly when I was a teenager and I had very low self-esteem. But I had a desire in my heart to teach.”
Her husband Don was supportive and encouraged her to stick with it.
“He knew that I would be a good teacher and told me that it was their loss for not accepting me.”
While working on her presentation skills to improve her chances of being accepted into instructor training, Beth also connected with Frank Dolman, who was in charge of first aid classes at Fraser Valley College, as UFV was called at the time.
“Frank really helped me out. He sent a letter to WCB assuring them that there was work for me if I were to qualify as an instructor.
This tipped the balance, and Beth was accepted into a first aid instructor course, and began teaching, with her first course in a portable on the Chilliwack campus on Yale Road.
“We didn’t have computers or PowerPoint as a teaching aid then. We had to prepare all of our own materials on transparencies or write on the chalkboard – and I was allergic to chalk,” recalls Beth. “I would type up my notes and then get them blown up on a photocopier and turned into transparencies. I can’t draw very well, but the students got used to my little ‘peanut men’. I would draw a figure 8 and give it arms and legs and eyes. For a heat stroke I would colour the head red, and for heat exhaustion I would draw some little beads of sweat dripping off.”
After she had been teaching first aid courses, Beth was summoned to Frank Dolman’s office one day
“Frank said, ‘come and see me before you leave.’ I was terrified. It was like being summoned to the principal’s office. He asked if I would consider coordinating all for the first aid courses for the college. I wasn’t sure if I was up to it, but he said ‘I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think you could do it!’”
The coordinator’s duties included training and mentoring first aid instructors, ordering supplies, and setting up courses.
Beth has been teaching and coordinating first aid studies steadily ever since, until stepping back from teaching this year.
She has taught first aid to many hundreds, if not more than a thousand, students. Many of them have gone on to save lives.
“One of the most satisfying things about my job is seeing the success of my students. Getting the first aid training enabled many of them to go on to good-paying jobs in an industrial setting. Others went on to become paramedics or firefighters or care aides or nurses.”
The technical support for her teaching improved over the years – she now loves using PowerPoint and whiteboards and has a dedicated classroom for first aid at UFV’s Clearbrook centre so she doesn’t have to drag equipment out of bins every day. She’s also very to now have access to AEDs (automatic external defibulators) to train students how to shock a heart back into beating.
But her teaching has improved too. She took the provincial instructor diploma program and picked up pointers from observing others teach.
“I teach from my heart, and I try to prepare students for the real world so that they can be successful when they get out there and be good first aiders and care about their patient. I care about my students and how they do.
“A good first aid attendant has a heart for people, and a good understanding of how the human body works, is open to critique and change, and enjoys first aid.”
She particularly enjoyed the opportunities she had, through contracts outside of UFV, to work with troubled youth in the correctional system.
“I’ve been thinking the last little while about where I came from, how I could barely get the words out when I was in Grade 9 because of my stutter, and where I am today. Learning did not come easy for me so I have a lot of empathy for slow learners. I had to work really hard to master my courses.
“I think that’s why I really like working with people on the margins who are a little troubled or have low self-esteem. It is very rewarding to get them on the path to getting a good job and turning their life around.”
When she became an examiner, or someone who conducts tests of would-be first aid instructors, she brought her supportive teaching philosophy with her.
“I hate failing students and have a hard time with conducting exams but it is important and necessary work. Rather than come down hard on them and say ‘you fail’ I try to be supportive and say ‘today you have not been successful.’ I try to encourage them not to give up in class or in the real world and to help them so that they can succeed next time. I remember what it was like to have been turned down the first time for instructor training by WCB. After that, I decided to do everything I could to build up my skills and confidence.”
This approach has made her a very well received first aid examiner and mentor of new instructors.
Now that she steps back from active teaching of first aid courses — “I used to just bounce back up from the constant kneeling while teaching but now I have to brace myself with my hands so I knew it was time” — she is reflecting on the many lives she’s touched: those of her students and those of the people whose lives she and they have saved.
“Whenever someone’s life is in your hands it is a serious responsibility. You don’t want to blow it. I do what I can. I know I’m not God. But you’re always a bit nervous.”
Over the years she has stopped to help at accidents and seen that one of her former students has got there first.
“It’s so neat to see them in action putting their skills to use. They’ll say, ‘Oh Beth, do you want to take over?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, you’re trained and you’re in charge. I’m here to support you.’”
Beth is very grateful to UFV for the years of employment and support, especially during a health crisis when she suffered and recovered from a brain tumour. She credits her strong Christian faith for her success over the years, along with the help and support of the coordinators in the Continuing Studies division, including Frank Dolman, Ron Coreau, Catherine McDonald, Barb Harms, and Cheryl Isaac.