Feb 01, 2013
By Tara Tosh Kennedy

Like one of the family

Tracy Daigneault uses vacation time or takes a leave of absence each month to work on a First Nation reserve

Teckles Photography Inc.Tracy Daigneault balances work in the city, regular trips to her adopted community of Birch Narrows and time with her husband and two young daughters.

When Tracy Daigneault’s husband, Brent, called with the news of his first RCMP posting, she thought he said they were moving to the “south end” of Saskatchewan. But he was talking about Southend, 600 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. “I was sort of shocked,” says Daigneault, “but I was totally up for the adventure, even though I didn’t know what a remote nursing station was.” As it turned out, it was where she found employment during the two-year posting.

Next, they were off to Birch Narrows, a Dene First Nation reserve in the northern hamlet of Turnor Lake. Today, Daigneault lives and works in Saskatoon but also continues to serve Birch Narrows as its only nurse practitioner. On any given day, she might have to arrange to medevac an injured child, drain a boil, manage pain for a palliative care patient or lead an evening immunization clinic.

The pace may be hectic, but in the decade she’s been working there on and off, Daigneault has come to see the community’s residents as family. “I didn’t make it up there one month, and I had elders calling me at home to make sure I was OK.”
Daigneault tries to do the six-hour drive at least once a month and stays for four to 10 days. She uses vacation time or takes a leave of absence from her half-time job with Saskatoon Health Region, providing health-care services and counselling at White Buffalo Youth Lodge and Mount Royal Collegiate high school. Both settings have a large number of aboriginal youth.

Daigneault sometimes brings her daughters with her to Birch Narrows. The girls are always welcomed back by their playmates and even attend the local school during their visits.

Daigneault laughs when she remembers her first encounter with Brent, an unassuming, down-to-earth RCMP officer: “I thought he might be a plumber.” She adds, “There are so many things I’ve learned from him.” A typical dinner-table conversation might include an exchange about the province’s mental health act and what can be done to help patients without infringing on their rights.

Daigneault believes nurses and law enforcement officers are an excellent marital fit: both require a high level of empathy, thrive by making strong community connections and can find work fairly easily when they move. “I’m lucky,” she says. “A lot of RCMP officers’ wives can’t find work up north.” She has landed employment each time Brent has been posted to a reserve.

Daigneault also has a contract with Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority to teach nurses the required skills for their first jobs in northern Saskatchewan and to explain what they can expect. Compassion, openness and empathy are key qualities for these recruits, she says: “When I lived up north, getting my own child to a doctor was a struggle; I can identify with my patients and what they go through.” When an elder needs to leave town to see a specialist, Daigneault sends the individual to the travel coordinator — and then makes sure the patient has an appropriate escort who knows which health questions to ask the care provider.

It’s not all work when the family visit Birch Narrows. They have taken part in Dene camps, talent shows, family nights and festivals. Daigneault delights in trying traditional foods and uses traditional medicine to complement Western methods. The standard Western treatment for stomatitis in a child is nystatin drops, but she says they aren’t always effective: “What does work is spruce gum.” She sends someone out to collect the gum and boil it down until it forms a substance that, when cool, is painted on the inside of the child’s mouth.

“You learn to be creative,” she says, referring to often limited health supplies and services on the reserve. There’s no local ambulance, and she has had to fashion stretchers from bedsheets on occasion.

Daigneault immerses herself in community life, wherever she is. She created Birch Narrows’ Healthy Lifestyle Challenge, a friendly weight-loss competition that took its inspiration from the TV reality show The Biggest Loser. She spearheaded Turnor Lake’s first annual Women’s Wellness Conference. She’s the education chair for the Saskatchewan Association of Nurse Practitioners and has been a Girl Guide leader. And she is known as an animal lover who has rescued and found homes for dozens of sick and wounded dogs.

Once her children have finished high school, Daigneault intends to live in the cabin she and Brent built in the village of Île-à-la-Crosse, less than two hours away from the reserve. (Her daughters’ handprints, she adds proudly, were the finishing touches to the concrete foundation.) Before that move, she hopes to have earned a master’s degree in women’s health. “Women’s health issues are a big piece of health care in the region.”

Her hopes for her adopted community of Birch Narrows? That post-secondary education will become the standard. “The youth are very aware and in touch with the rest of the world. I’d like to see every student graduate from high school and go on to college or university. Education really is the key to personal and community success.”

10 questions with Tracy Daigneault

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Being nominated by the people of Birch Narrows in 2011 for a First Nations and Inuit Health Branch National Award of Excellence in Nursing, and then winning the award

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I used to be a classic car enthusiast. My first car was a metallic purple 1965 Pontiac. I dreamed about becoming a Top Fuel drag car racer

“If I had more free time, I would….”
Learn to relax, spend more time with my girls, nieces and nephews, visit family and friends more often, and take up a sport

Where did you go on your last vacation?
Victoria and Tofino, B.C., on a family road trip

What is the one place in the world you’d most like to visit?
Tanzania. We have a five-year-old sponsor child there

What was the last good book you read?
The Help by Kathryn Stockett

If there was a single person who inspired you to become a nurse, who was it?
My grandmother, Hannah. Her mother was the local midwife in Verwood, Sask.

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
To go with your gut

What is the best thing about your current job?
Great managers, flexibility that allows me to continue with northern nursing/teaching and interactions with interesting people

If you had the power to make one change to the health-care system, what would it be?
I’d put NP-led clinics in Saskatchewan — and more of them right across the country — to improve quality of care and accessibility

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