Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw nurse explains how Indigenous pain often misunderstood

A young nurse from Eskasoni, N.S., is working hard to change misconceptions in the health-care system, and teach his peers how to communicate with their Indigenous patients.

Athanasius Sylliboy earns prestigious recognition from College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia

Athanasius Sylliboy was given the Rising Star Award of nursing in Nova Scotia. He hopes to return to work in Eskasoni, and inspire more kids from his community to follow in his footsteps. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

It's a question repeatedly asked in hospitals and medical clinics: rate your pain on a scale from one to 10.

For registered nurse Athanasius Sylliboy, he wants his peers to know that if they're asking a Mi'kmaw patient that, they won't get an accurate answer.

"In Mi'kmaq, we don't have a word for pain. We only have descriptions of pain," he said. "So, if you're asking me zero to 10, what's your pain? And I have no concept or idea what pain actually means, it's not really appropriate."

Sylliboy, 25, is from Eskasoni, N.S., but is now living in Halifax. He works at the IWK and QEII while he upgrades his skills to become a nurse practitioner.

He takes every opportunity to teach his colleagues about cultural differences, including how to ask Indigenous patients to describe their pain.

"I always say that collectively, we're all stepping stones," said Sylliboy. "Together, we can build a bridge and help gap health inequities that are present in our health-care system."

Sylliboy is working at the IWK while he studies to become a nurse practitioner. He's also researching how to communicate with children about their pain. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Sylliboy uses tobacco as another example of something that could be misunderstood by non-Indigenous health-care workers. Some, he said, would jump to the conclusion that if a patient uses tobacco, it's because they're smokers.

"But in actuality, they use it for forms of smudging or in medicine pouches," he explained.

"Tobacco would be used in sacred ceremonies as a symbol of thanks to the creator, to the land. You want to talk about, what does tobacco mean to you?"

Sylliboy was recently given the Rising Star Award by the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia.

How Sylliboy became a nurse

His journey to become a nurse started in an unexpected place. In his final year of high school, he was sent to Toronto for a national science fair with his project about Indigenous diets.

One of the judges examining his work questioned if Sylliboy was planning a future in health care. It was a conversation that changed the direction of his life.

Up until that point, he had wrongly assumed the role of a nurse was to just wash patients.

"After my first time in the hospital and actually caring for a patient, I thought, 'Now this is something I want to do. This is something I see myself doing for the rest of my life,'" he said.

Sylliboy applied to the nursing program at Cape Breton University, and became one of the first two Mi'kmaq men to graduate from the program.

"What I take the most pride in is knowing that because of the changes I try to implement within the program or within our health district, that maybe there'll be a second, third or fourth or fifth [male Indigenous nurse]," he said.

Future plans

Sylliboy said he would like to see Indigenous spirituality be added to medical programs as a way to help understand the cultural differences.

When he graduates, he can't wait to move back home, and continue his work in his community.

"Hopefully being able to explain things in Mi'kmaq, hopefully being able to understand where the patients are coming from, and being able to meet in the middle, we would have better health outcomes for our Indigenous communities," said Sylliboy.