Nova Scotia

Dalhousie program works to attract Indigenous students to health professions

Indigenous representation in health professions in Nova Scotia is extremely low, but that could change as a group of high school students are exposed to medical and dentistry programs at Dalhousie University this week.

'I found out I need pre-calculus and stuff, so I'm getting those courses next semester,' says budding dentist

Kayla Steeves, left, works with paint to learn about different types of bruises. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

While most teens cringe at the thought of spending March Break at school, Amber Simon is perfectly happy at Dalhousie University this week, drilling plastic teeth and treating "patients" in the dentistry program.

Simon, 19, is one of a dozen Indigenous teens who are taking part in the Eagle "Kitpu" Wise Program, a camp designed to expose the teens to health careers that they might not have considered before.

Up until now, Simon thought nursing might be a possibility in her future.

She was surprised by her interest in dentistry.

"We got to drill holes in teeth and stuff, and plastic teeth. It was really cool," she said.

Indigenous representation in health professions is extremely low, said Joe MacEachern, the leader of the Indigenous health program at Dalhousie's Faculty of Medicine.

Amber Simon, who is Ojibway, says she was surprised at how much she loved learning about dentistry. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

There are currently eight students at Dalhousie's medical school who self-identify as Indigenous.

"A lot of times they just don't know that these careers exist. Programs like audiology and occupational therapy aren't an option for them because they don't even know or quite understand what that career is," he said.

"As they get older and they start looking around and seeing role models and seeing people in the community doing these jobs, they start seeing themselves as one of those careers."

The week is a mix of western and Indigenous teachings. For some of the teens, it is one of the first times they learned about their culture's connection to healing.

"We learned about ... the seven grandfather teachings, and about how the natives got to do their medicine and how it relates to the western teachings and everything," said Brandon Parsons.

The 17-year-old said he's wanted to be a dentist since he was little, but now he knows exactly what path he has to take.

Joe MacEachern, who organized the program to introduce Indigenous students to health professions, says it's important to show them what courses they need to get into health programs. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

"One of the things I found out I need is pre-calculus and stuff, so I'm getting those courses next semester through high school," said Parsons.

On Thursday, nurse Dawn Googoo brought in her baby, Joy, to work with the students.

She's hopeful that a program like this will help more students follow her path.

"Everywhere you go, there's only one Aboriginal nurse," she said. "Like right now, the hospital I was working at, I was the only one. There's a lot of patients, especially the elder patients that love seeing somebody they're familiar with and can speak the language," said Googoo.

The program is being funded primarily by the U.S.-based Johnson Scholarship Foundation, which as part of its focus works with organizations and institutions that serve Indigenous people and "economically disadvantaged people," according to its website.

Nurse Dawn Googoo, originally from Whycocomagh First Nation, brought her baby daughter, Joy, to help work with the students. (CBC)

The five-day program will also be held in Cape Breton and Antigonish to give other Indigenous and black students the chance to build connections in the medical field.

Once the week is finished, MacEachern will keep in touch with the teens and advise them on courses to pick and scholarships that can help them fulfil their career path.

It's a networking opportunity Kayla Steeves said will be essential as she starts at Dalhousie in the fall, with a goal of becoming an anesthesiologist.

Brandon Parsons, an Indigenous teen who participated in the Eagle "Kitpu" Wise Program, a camp designed to expose the teens to health professions, presents his team's paper on treating a fictional patient. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

"I've had a lot of surgeries on my ears, and the anesthesiologist was always the fun person coming in before the surgery and really helped you calm down and be OK with what was going to happen," said Steeves.

Now that she's had a week of the medical school experience, she said it's eased her nerves and shown her what to expect in the years to come.

MacEachern said the teens have shown a big change in their confidence, and their interest in the professions since arriving Monday morning.

"They end up leaving with a completely different outlook of their future when they finish the program," he said.