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Two-eyed seeing

Aboriginal Health Initiative links Innu and Western medicine

special feature: COASTS

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial's leadership and expertise in cold ocean and Arctic science, technology and society (COASTS).

By Michelle Osmond

Teaching and learning was the purpose behind a recent trip Memorial students took to Sheshatshiu, Labrador.

As part of a program called Seeing Beyond Good Medicines, students from medicine, nursing, pharmacy, social work and kinesiology created and delivered simulation activities to highlight health careers to Grade 6-12 students in the Innu community.

A teepee shell on the edge of a lake during sunset
A teepee frame overlooking the shore of Mishta-Shipu/Lake Melville in the neighbouring community of North West River, Labrador.
Photo: Britt Bailey

Dalhousie University and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine students also participated in the exercise.

Sowing seeds of possibility

The undergraduates worked in interprofessional teams in the spirit of “two-eyed seeing,” which means Innu elders and healers along with Innu youth shared their knowledge of healing practices with the visiting students.

It was the first time Seeing Beyond Good Medicines was offered as part of the Faculty of Medicine’s Aboriginal Health Initiative, of which Dr. Carolyn Sturge-Sparkes is the co-ordinator.

She says the project is designed to be an extension of the Healers of Tomorrow gathering, a health-care profession camp for Indigenous high school students in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“By going into the community, we reach pre-secondary school students and provide the opportunity for students from different health-care studies to work together to provide, what we hope, is a memorable experience for the youth of the community. In short, we are aiming to sow seeds of possibilities,” she said.

“A tent was set up just outside the school and we had lunch with the elders,” Dr. Sturge-Sparkes continued. “The elders welcomed all kinds of questions from our students about the Innu culture and their knowledge of medicines.”

A group of students eating lunch in a canvas tent
Undergraduate students from Memorial University, Dalhousie University and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine eat lunch and learn from local elders in a traditional canvas tent located outside the Sheshatshiu Innu School.
Photo: Britt Bailey

‘Healing strategies’

Kanani Davis is an educator and Innu consultant who works with the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation Health Department.

She believes the program opened the doors for Innu students to think about medicine and healing strategies in their community.

“The medical students were able to meet and ask elders questions about Innu medicine,” said Ms. Davis. “The elders talked about their Innu history and how they never needed a doctor or nurse because they had the knowledge and experience of what to do when they encountered a medical emergency.

“Innu would treat the sick or injured person using medicines from the land and animals,” she continued. “It was very important to respect the trees and plants for they helped the Innu when in need.”

Third-year MD student Burton Ward says the Innu made good use of their surroundings and found unique and multipurpose medicines.

“It reminded me of using Vicks rub on your chest when you were sick as a kid.” — Burton Ward

One example of a medicine that has many uses is a thick paste made from boiled sap. A thick, sludgy maple syrup-type substance, it is aromatic and woodsy smelling.

“This paste is used for many things such as covering open wounds and applied to the chests of infants who have a cough. It reminded me of using Vicks rub on your chest when you were sick as a kid — I can imagine that the aromatic feel of the sap gave a similar relieving sensation,” said Mr. Ward.

“The elders talked about how years ago this would suffice when members of their community would accidentally cut open a large wound. It would prevent infection and promote healing. This would be like us using a bandage with Polysporin or sutures.”

“The Innu children need to see themselves in this field and there’s no better way to do this than to experience it first-hand.” — Kanani Davis

Mr. Ward says the best part of Seeing Beyond Good Medicines was the reactions on the kids’ faces when they successfully examined their peers. The medical students demonstrated how to use an otoscope to look into ears, an ophthalmoscope to examine people’s eyes and a point-of-care ultrasound machine to examine organs.

“Not only were all the kids actively participating, but they were so proud to have been able to examine their friends tympanic membrane (ear drum), or watch their pupils constrict with light.”

Hands-on experience

Ms. Davis hopes the program will be repeated.

“I would definitely have the program back to our schools and have students talk to Innu students and parents,” she said.

“I think it was very important for Innu children to see first-hand the importance of getting educated and staying in school. They need to see themselves in this field and there’s no better way to do this than to experience it first-hand.”

Dr. Sturge-Sparkes agrees the program was a success.

From left are Dr. Carolyn Sturge-Sparkes and Burton Ward.
From left are Dr. Carolyn Sturge-Sparkes and Burton Ward.
Photo: Chris Hammond

She says one of the teachers at the school said it was the best presentation she had seen at the school as far as student engagement was concerned.

“Our undergrads proved to be a great group, very keen and full of great ideas. We could tell that the community enjoyed having us there.”

Mr. Ward has some advice for his fellow students, no matter what discipline they are studying.

“Seeing Beyond Good Medicines is a program that brings First Nation and Western culture together and encourages growth and understanding collectively. I would strongly suggest anyone who has an opportunity to work with a population different from your own to do so.”

Funding for Seeing Beyond Good Medicines was provided by Memorial’s Public Engagement Accelerator Fund, Rural Family Medicine, the Labrador Health Authority and the Sheshatshiu community.

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