Indigenous

Meet some of the First Nations health care workers on the front lines during a pandemic

Here are three First Nations health care workers from across the country sharing some insight on what they do, why they do it and how COVID-19 is affecting them. 

'Our whole shift, we are in PPE — in gloves, masks, gown'

Isabelle Wallace from Madawaska Maliseet First Nation is a nurse working in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Que. (Submitted by Isabelle Wallace)

Throughout the month of June, CBC Indigenous is introducing you to some of the health care workers who are keeping our communities safe. 

Here are three First Nations health care workers from across the country sharing some insight on what they do, why they do it and how COVID-19 is affecting them. 

Isabelle Wallace 

When she was 17, Isabelle Wallace left her home community of Madawaska Maliseet First Nation in New Brunswick to pursue her post-secondary education. She was the first person in her community to get a bachelor's degree in nursing  and currently has a master's degree in nursing from the University of Ottawa. 

"I always wanted to work with people," said Wallace.

"I didn't know I would want to go into health care. I started in psychology just because I wanted this interaction with patients."

During her undergraduate studies, she got a job as a research assistant at a hospital and met a couple of nurses who changed her perception on what nurses do.

"They are the backbone of our health care system," she said.  

"I immediately decided to switch programs."

She completed her final practicum in 2016 in northern Manitoba and realized that she wanted to work within Indigenous communities getting to know community members. 

In March she took a job as a nurse working in Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec.

Wallace said it takes a lot of time and effort to create a partnership with patients so when she took the northern position she was firm that she would want to stay in the same community "so I get to know the history, the family's dynamic, and also to be able to know them and to have a better continuum of care with them." 

Gen Kakinoosit

Gen Kakinoosit is from Sucker Creek First Nation and works in the housekeeping department at the University of Alberta Hospital. (Submitted by Gen Kakinoosit)

Gen Kakinoosit from Sucker Creek First Nation in Alberta has been working in housekeeping at the emergency department of the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton for three years. 

Since the pandemic began, she said it's been scary and hectic at times working to make sure that everything in the department is clean and sanitized. 

She also said it's been eerie because all of the department's patients are in their own rooms and each room is being treated as an isolation room.

"Our whole shift, we are in PPE — in gloves, masks, gown," she said. 

"It was evident right from the beginning, it was going to be like that for a long time."

Kakinoosit said she always wanted to work in health care to give back.

"I'm very thankful for my grandparents, they're very loving and caring," she said. 

Kakinoosit began working in nursing homes before making the transition to hospitals.

"My greatest memories were in nursing homes, like staying up with the elders."

Dr. Ojistoh Horn

Dr. Ojistoh Horn is a general practitioner in Akwesasne. (Submitted by Ojistoh Horn)

Dr. Ojistoh Horn is the only full-time general practitioner at the Kanonkwatseriio clinic in Akwesasne, a Mohawk community of 25,000 people that straddles the Ontario-Quebec-New York state borders. 

She works with two nurse practitioners and covers about 14,000 patients. 

Even before the pandemic, she said it was challenging to meet the needs of so many people with chronic illnesses but going into health care is something that she said she always knew she had to do. 

In response to COVID-19, Akwesasne, like many other places, shut down businesses within its borders keeping only essential services running. 

"What this COVID did was it unmasked the inequalities that exist in terms of infrastructure and public health," she said.

"We're told to wash our hands, stay six feet away and self isolate and eat well [but] we have problems with housing and water and food security, we have multiple generations living in homes and we have lots of chronic diseases and a lot of young people who may be carriers coming into the homes."

But Horn said Akwasasne has solid infrastructure that many other Indigenous communities do not have.

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.

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