From the street, the Native Education College looks quiet at 9:55 a.m. The building, a wooden longhouse, stands out among the new real estate development in the neighbouring stretch of East Vancouver. But within it, two flights up, a classroom is abuzz.
Eleven women enrolled in the Health Care Assistant program eagerly prepare for their class. There is an excited murmur as these students chat, shuffle their chairs and clean their hands with Purell sanitizer.
“Today, we’re going to talk about safety when visiting parents,” the instructor says to the group. “Have you heard about objective and subjective data?”
“It’s new to us,” replies Ria Kisoun, a 33-year-old Inuvialuit student from Inuvik, Northwest Territories.
“Good, we get to learn something new,” the instructor says as she turns to the whiteboard.
Kisoun and her peers are taking this course to learn how to administer grooming, bathing, mobility and nutritional support services to elderly clients or those in need of special assistance. Students are asked to attend to the physical, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual aspects of patient wellness.
This Aboriginal training program began two years ago in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health. It aims to improve the wellness of Aboriginal people by enabling them to deliver quality health care services among their own communities. The course supports those students who have experienced barriers to accessing programs through mainstream avenues.
“Many of these people have just not had education available to them,” says Sharlet Wheating, one of the instructors. “They’ve had a lot of psychological traumas, a lot of social issues and I think this gives them the best opportunity to be successful. And that’s ultimately what we want.”
A bumpy road
Kisoun has experienced a lot of loss over the last three years. Four of her close family members passed away, her mother suffered a stroke, losing her ability to speak, and Kisoun ended an abusive relationship.
But in the midst of the struggle, she found a way to ground herself.
“I had been taking care of a lot of my family members, who were terminally ill, on my own,” she says. “These were people who gave so much to me in their health and I wanted to help the family in return. So, I made myself available. And I really did a good job and I found it really rewarding.”
When she came across a flyer for the Native Education College’s Health Care Assistant program, it seemed like a good fit. Studying how to care for others became a way to channel her energy.
Two weeks into the program, her father’s cousin was medically evacuated to Vancouver General Hospital from the Yukon. Despite only being in her forties, the woman had suffered liver and kidney failure due to long-term alcohol addiction.
Kisoun rushed to her family member’s side. She understood that patients need to be surrounded by comforts that are familiar to them.
“Our first response at home is to help out with food,” she says. “What we usually do is boil the bones, animal bones, and make broth, rich broth. So … I prepared everything, like a kind of smorgasbord.”
“That (ended up being) her last meal,” she continues. “We didn’t know it then.”
Kisoun went to Vancouver General every day after class to help take care of her cousin — an experience that reinforced to the student that she had a natural aptitude for nurturing. Her father’s cousin encouraged her to have confidence in her caregiving skills. She passed away only four weeks after being admitted.
“It was really draining,” Kisoun says, “but I knew that I was in the program to be able to provide assistance to people like her that needed care.”
A supportive environment
Going to school full time while caring for her father’s cousin wasn’t easy. Kisoun says she couldn’t have done it without the support of the staff at NEC.
“They allowed me to be there when I needed to be,” she says.
NEC staff members do whatever they can to help students juggle their schoolwork and family commitments, but for some, the support isn’t enough. Of the 20 students who began the program with Kisoun, only 11 remain as they enter their clinical placements.
Financial barriers and family commitments are the main reasons for quitting — most who leave do so within the first few weeks. Many of the women in the program have children. Some of the students also struggle with addiction, mental health issues and unhealthy relationships.
One of Kisoun’s classmates says she lives on a $610 monthly government allowance. Until moving to Vancouver recently, the student commuted two hours each way from Surrey, where rent is lower.
At NEC, tuition and supplies are free. The school also provides free breakfasts and bus passes to make it easier for the students to attend daily. As well, it offers a number of other support services. The student council runs a food bank, for example, and counselors and Aboriginal elders are available to help students cope with emotional issues. Study space and tutoring services are also provided to help with school work. And after graduation, the school provides six months of employment support, including consultation on resumes, applications and interviews.
The staff agrees that providing an Aboriginal-focused environment is key to making students feel welcome. Christina Hutchinson, a registered nurse and instructor, says one of the biggest challenges the teachers face is raising the self-esteem of the students and encouraging them to feel comfortable speaking up in class.
“They have to learn to trust you,” Hutchinson says. “If they don’t believe that you’re on their side, you won’t get anything from them. They really have to believe that you’re interested in them as people.”
From the first day of class, Kisoun says she knew that she belonged. It was reaffirming to be surrounded by women who had faced similar barriers, she says, and had “experienced the systemic racism that is placed in Aboriginal women’s lives.”
Health in their hands
“I can’t believe they’re putting us on clinicals,” Kisoun says, reacting to the four-week placement she’s about to begin. “I feel so unprepared — still.” She laughs and puts her face in her hands.
The clinical placement will take place at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Langara, under the supervision of an instructor. Over the course of the month, she will provide care for up to four clients.
“I’m excited about that,” she says.
Yet despite her high grades and enthusiasm, Kisoun has had a hard time believing she made it so far in the program. She recalls having nightmares where a program manager would come up to her at the placement site and tell her that the staff had found a technicality and would have to remove her.
Going on practicum doesn’t feel real, she says. She still has a hard time believing it, even after the school provided her with navy blue scrubs, a new stethoscope and enough money to buy work shoes.
It began to finally sink in when she got her name tag. “I couldn’t deny it then, that it was really happening.”
Bringing it home
It’s in Kisoun’s nature to want to take care of people. When she graduates, she’ll finally have a certification to earn a living doing so. And yet, she’s still trying to accept that her work has value.
“To expect to get paid, that in itself is … I haven’t embraced that yet.”
It helps to look to her classmates as role models, she says. Especially those who have been successful in running their own home care businesses.
It also helps that on the Squamish reserve, where she now lives, people have already started confiding in her.
“They talk to me about their health problems,” she says. “A lot of them are going through diseases related to the abuse they’ve sustained to their bodies — drug dependency and alcohol dependency. They’re open to talk to me about it and I appreciate that … they can trust me.”
Having lived in Aboriginal communities across Canada, both urban and remote, she has seen the effects of unqualified health care providers hired by bands.
“To know that they are responsible for providing care to elders and to vulnerable people … I don’t even want to know the consequences of that.”
Eventually, Kisoun hopes to return to Inuvik and work to improve the health care there. Some girls from her high school got nursing degrees and returned to work in their communities.
“It will feel good to be part of that one day,” Kisoun says. “When I can go home and contribute, that’ll be nice.”
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Malin Dunfors will be working with SKI and Skiing Magazine in Colorado this summer. You can follow her on Twitter @Dunfors. Jacqueline Ronson is a freelance journalist and adventurer. Follow her tweets @jacsrons.