Nov 01, 2010
By Tara Tosh Kennedy

Earning trust and building strength

Since coming to Canada, Dennis Ano has worked to bring greater health and safety to Vancouver Island’s aboriginal population. He insists that a strong sense of family, instilled in him in his native Philippines, is central to his work as a community health nurse. Building trust is paramount. “I like people to be able to ask me anything,” he says.

Teckles Photography Inc.Fishing is a favourite pastime for Dennis Ano.

Ano was initially drawn to nursing because it would allow him to travel the world. After graduating cum laude from the World Citi Colleges’ bachelor of science in nursing program in Quezon City, he stayed close to home for four years to work as an operating room nurse ― a job that introduced him to his wife, Terry, who is also a nurse. “It’s one of those classic stories,” laughs the 42-year-old. “We both worked in the OR, and we just clicked. She was my junior and was assisting in an operation the first time I saw her.” In 1993, Ano and his wife had a son, Jonathan David. Still wanting to travel, Ano brought his family to Canada in 1996. A second child, Josiah James, was born here three years later.

To practise here, Ano had to meet several requirements. First, he had to have his credentials sent directly from the Philippines’ Professional Regulation Commission and World Citi Colleges to the College of Registered Nurses of British Columbia, and he had to prove that he’d been a practising nurse for five years. He also had to pass English fluency exams and undergo criminal record checks in both the Philippines and Canada. Finally, he needed to write the Canadian licensure exam, which he did successfully in 1998. Soon afterwards, he became the associate director of care at a seniors’ home, where he performed both bedside care and administrative tasks. In 2006, he joined the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Nanaimo, B.C., as a community health nurse.

“I think it was fate that brought me to the centre,” Ano says. Because he had become close to a few aboriginal friends in Canada, he already knew some basic facts about aboriginal health and social issues. “Their statistics are high on pretty much everything: suicide, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, you name it,” he says. “So I wanted to be part of a solution, even if it was just a small part.”

There is no typical day at Tillicum Lelum, which serves mostly a high-risk population. Although the centre focuses on people living on and off aboriginal reserves, its doors are open to anyone who needs assistance. Ano is kept busy with screening for STIs, HIV, diabetes and tuberculosis; performing immunizations; managing wounds; and giving referrals for other types of care or programs.

Twice a year, Ano gives workshops at Vancouver Island University on cultural safety. At Tillicum Lelum, he mentors new nurses and nursing students, helps out three times a year in a training program for substance abuse counsellors and runs an outreach program for harm reduction services. He also manages an HIV/AIDS program, called Into the Circle, which provides holistic counselling, education, treatment and support services to the entire community. Occasionally, Ano lends a hand with the centre’s Building Better Babies program (supporting parents-to-be and people caring for babies up to six months old), diabetes drop-in and adult basic education program.

Early last year, a woman walked into Ano’s office and asked to be tested for HIV. She was such a low-risk candidate that she’d been refused at other clinics. As expected, her results were negative for the virus. When Ano asked why she had wanted the test, she said she had been to South Africa, would soon be returning and wanted to set an example for the people she met there. She wanted to show them that being screened for HIV involved no stigma and was not difficult. The woman worked with a group called Edu-AIDS, a South African consulting service that uses education to reduce the spread of AIDS. “So I told her I wanted to be part of her team,” Ano recalls. Last November, Ano went to South Africa for three weeks.

It wasn’t as simple as making a decision to go, he says. To raise cash for the trip and the project he’d be working on in South Africa, Ano held bottle drives and garage sales. His family played a big part in his fundraising efforts. “My boys and my wife helped me distribute flyers, sort through cans, whatever I needed. It was no longer just my project ― it was a team project,” he says proudly. A Nanaimo couple with South African roots donated the last $1,600 he needed.

Ano travelled with members of Edu-AIDS, including the group’s founders — Jaco and Antoinette Fouche, who are both HIV-positive South Africans. Even before he arrived, Ano knew of the staggering difference in the rates of HIV infection between Canada and South Africa. He points out that for 30 to 40 per cent of South Africans with AIDS, the virus was transmitted from their HIV-infected mothers — either at birth or through breastfeeding.

In Bosbou, a small community in Mossel Bay, Ano demonstrated how to use medical supplies and tried to “go with the flow.” What he most wanted, he says, was to create a long-term bond with community residents and earn their trust. This trust proved crucial when Edu-AIDS began teaching how to prevent sexually transmitted infections. While he was there, Ano also mended plumbing, fixed toilets, filled holes and painted at an elementary school and a middle school.

This past year, Ano has spent time talking to others about what he saw and learned in South Africa. The trip was deeply meaningful to him ― he still has the South African flag up in his office, and he keeps photos from the trip in his desk drawer. Ano plans to bring the founders of Edu-AIDS to Canada to talk about their work and to return to South Africa himself. In the meantime, he promotes awareness here at home about HIV/AIDS in South Africa, hoping it might inspire others to make a difference there as well. “I have this fever of wanting to help that I want everyone to catch,” he says.

Some of Ano’s time is spent at Tillicum Lelum’s safe house in Nanaimo, which provides temporary shelter for at-risk youth. This environment gives him a chance to put his personal beliefs about holistic care and spirituality into practice.

“Rather than just concentrating on a physical ailment or malady, I consider a person’s entire being, including physical, emotional, socio-economic and spiritual needs,” says Ano, who supports the use of macrobiotics, meditation, yoga, massage and acupuncture. Ano greatly values the spiritual side of life. He once thought about becoming a minister and has taken a few postgraduate courses at Regent College, an international graduate school of Christian studies in Vancouver.

At the safe house, Ano teaches his young clients about STIs, HIV, and hepatitis C and tells them about drug and alcohol programs and parenting resources. “You have to be real and not force an agenda on them,” he says. “And when they start opening up ― like telling you they’ve had more than one sexual partner ― you have to talk to them about the risks without sounding judgmental.”

Seeing people at their most vulnerable adds emotional challenges to the job, Ano says, and he works at not taking the more stressful parts of the day home with him. To take the edge off, he jogs, writes poetry, goes to the movies and fishes for bass in the lakes surrounding Nanaimo. “Bass fight a lot,” he says with a grin. “Trout give up too fast.”

Ano finds particular satisfaction in noticing more open communication about sex and HIV/AIDS in the community around him. His favourite anecdote is of a grandmother he met while he was working a booth at a health fair. The woman was helping herself to some condoms that were made available to passersby. “She told me they were for her grandchildren,” he says. “She wanted to do what she could to protect them because she knew they were sexually active.” He believes this wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago.

Asked about the future, Ano says he’d like to finish his master’s degree — in either divinity or public health — over the next five or six years. He also plans to do more work with Edu-AIDS and expand the program into India.

At the heart of Ano’s quest to make a difference is his deep commitment to his family. “I want to help others,” he says. “And, first and foremost, I’m a husband and father. That’s a priority.”

Tara Tosh Kennedy, is a freelance journalist and artist in Ottawa, Ontario.
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