Indigenous nurses say they work to help patients feel safe during their 'most vulnerable' times

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

'I always knew that I wanted to do something that would help people,' says Métis nurse

Jessy Dame works as a nurse at a sexual health clinic in downtown Vancouver as well at a neonatal intensive care unit. (Submitted by Jessy Dame)

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 Indigenous nurses sharing some insight on what they do and why they do it. 

Jessy Dame

Jessy Dame's parents are both Métis from Treaty 1 and Treaty 2 territory, and he was born and raised in B.C.

He is finishing his master's degree in nursing at the University of British Columbia and works as a nurse at a LGBTQ-focused sexual health clinic in downtown Vancouver as well at St. Paul's Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). 

"I always knew that I wanted to do something that would help people," said Dame.

He said the most rewarding part of his work is being able to provide empowerment to people to take control of their own health.

"I think we work in and live in a system that tells people that health care professionals are in control," said Dame. 

He said one of the biggest things he stresses in the NICU is making sure mothers are supported and feel in control. 

He said when working with Indigenous patients that power imbalances between health care workers and patients are severely pronounced so he always makes sure to identify himself as Métis. 

He said he realized how influential and healing connecting to culture can be while at school. A Métis elder came and did a presentation in one of Dame's first year nursing classes and spoke about her family and the history of her community.

He said she spoke about two-spirit people and that was the first time he ever heard the term.

"She spoke about the beauty of spirit peoples, about the queer community but two-spirit people specifically, and how welcoming and loving and how lucky the families were to have peoples that were selected to be two-spirit by the creator," he said. 

"Historically there wasn't judgment for being who I am, and it was such a strong connection — I truly felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders."

Lauren Decontie 

Lauren Decontie is Cree and Algonquin from Mistissini, Que., and will soon be starting a job as a home care nurse. (Submitted by Lauren Decontie)

As a child, Lauren Decontie visited hospitals frequently because she always seemed to be coming down with some sort of illness. 

She said the nurses always made her feel as comfortable as possible and that led her on a path to become a nurse herself. 

Originally from Mistissini, Que., she recently finished her degree in nursing at McGill University while working part-time for the Wiichihiituwin Cree Health Board in Montreal.

While working for Wiichihiituwin, Decontie said her biggest challenge was trying to help patients experiencing mental health issues. 

"When it's something physical and you're able to make a difference, sometimes you're able to make a difference quickly," she said. 

But when it comes to mental health, she said even though listening can go a long way, sometimes it doesn't feel like it's enough to help the patient. 

When the pandemic hit, Decontie came into contact with a patient who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and she had to be isolated for 14 days away from her two young boys.

"I don't think anyone really anticipated how serious it would be," she said about the pandemic. 

"I did not want to be in a position again where I had to be away from them."

Decontie is back in Mistissini and will soon be starting a job as a home care nurse.

She said being back home has brought her a lot of peace because it's a different pace than living in a big city. 

"With everything going on, it just seems so fitting to be back in my community," she said. 

"I like doing what I can and I know there's always room for growth down the road if I want to go back down south and to gain more experience."

Athanasius Sylliboy

Athanasius Sylliboy is a nurse practitioner in Eskasoni, N.S. (Submitted by Athanasius Sylliboy)

Athanasius Sylliboy is a nurse practitioner practising in his home community of Eskasoni, N.S., and has recently completed his master's degree in nursing at Dalhousie University. 

In 2015, he got his bachelor's degree in nursing and went straight into critical care for almost four years. 

"The only reason I went into this area was that I didn't really see any other Indigenous nurses in the hospital, especially in critical care areas," he said. 

"I thought we need to be in these areas taking care of our most vulnerable populations."

Sylliboy said he's heard from community members that they will wait until they have exhausted all other options before going into the hospital for treatment because of issues around discrimination and racism.

He said he thought having a familiar face in his community's hospital would help.

"You should feel safe here," he said.

"Whether or not you're Indigenous, you're Black, you're an immigrant, you should feel safe in these areas because in these areas you're at your most vulnerable." 

He said he tries to help educate other hospital workers about residential schools and how to provide culturally competent care for people in his community. 

"It feeds into trauma-informed care, especially when it comes to caring for Indigenous populations — that you should have this awareness that trauma continues generation after generation," said Sylliboy. 

"In order for us to be proficient and culturally competent, we need to know the histories and cultures of our own province and who you might potentially encounter in your emergency departments."

Sylliboy also speaks Mi'kmaw, which he said gives patients in his community the opportunity to be able to better explain what they're experiencing. 

He said his presence as a nurse practitioner in the community has been received well, and that people say it's nice that someone understands what they're saying.

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