'I was never trained to do this,' Doctor recounts 10 years service at Vancouver refugee clinic

Family physician, Dr. Martina Scholtens, spent a decade serving refugee patients at a Vancouver clinic and shares her experiences in her new book, Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist.

Dr. Martina Scholtens' new book documents decade working as family physician at Bridge Refugee Clinic

Dr. Martina Scholtens poses at the UBC Bookstore with a copy of her newly-released book, Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist, which documents her decade working at the Bridge Refugee Clinic in East Vancouver. (Twitter/Martina Scholtens)

When Martina Scholtens was in medical school, she never imagined she would be working one-on-one with some of the most vulnerable people in Vancouver.

Scholtens worked from 2005 to 2015 at the Bridge Refugee Clinic and in her new book, Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist, she shares her stories from working on the front lines with newly-arrived refugees.

According to Scholtens, refugee stories in the media often follow one of two narratives; that refugees are unfairly trying to access services on the backs of taxpayers, or that they are saint-like and their actions should not be questioned. 

"It was clear to me, after working on the front lines with refugees, that neither of those were the case," Scholtens told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay.

Most often, she said, patients were recovering from trauma and overwhelmed by Western society.

Treating culture shock

"Medical diagnosis was a small part of what I was doing at the clinic," said Scholtens, adding she also played the roles of social worker and friend. 

In one instance, a patient had misunderstood how to use public transit and had been fined. The fee would drain his limited financial resources and Scholtens appealed successfully to TransLink to forgive the penalty.

"I would do things like that and think I was never trained to do this, this is not part of my job description," said Scholtens.

Many of Scholtens' stories in the book highlight the cultural differences between herself and her patients.

In one example, she complimented a female patient's shoes unaware that by doing so in that woman's culture she was then obligated to give them to Scholtens.

'Be respectful and be kind'

Scholtens' book is timely. According to Vancouver Coastal Health, Bridge Refugee Clinic is in the process of closing its refugee health services. All remaining patients will be transitioned to other clinics by November, including a privately-owned clinic operated inside the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. Welcome Centre.

After being at the front lines for many years, Scholtens offers this advice to the practitioners who will continue her work.

"Go in there, recognize the limitations of what you know, be curious, be respectful and be kind."

To hear the complete interview click on the audio labelled, Dr. Martina Scholtens on her new book, Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist.

With files from North by Northwest and Bridgette Watson