Sep 03, 2014
By Leah Geller

Speaking her language

Hopedale’s Sophie Pamak has strong ties to her community and her culture

Sophie Pamak
Teckles Photography Inc.Pamak was recognized in 2012 with an Award of Excellence in Nursing from Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit health branch.

Agvituk, meaning “place of the whales,” is the Inuktitut name for Hopedale. This coastal town of just over 500 people is the legislative capital of the Inuit territory of Nunatsiavut, a vast area of pristine, wild space along the northern coast of Labrador.

Most of Hopedale’s residents identify as Inuit, with about one in five speaking Inuktitut as their first language. Sophie Pamak is the community’s home care nurse. Most people know her as Twiggy: “My foster parents thought I had really skinny arms and legs, so they gave me this nickname.”

As an infant, Pamak was placed for adoption with the province because her mother, a young Inuk who was pursuing a university education in the south, was unwed. It was Pamak’s grandparents who eventually adopted and raised her, and they ensured she became fluent in Inuktitut. “As a teenager, I noticed my grandmother would come back from the clinic with pills and not know how to take them because she couldn’t read English very well,” Pamak recalls. “That’s when I decided I wanted to help by becoming a nurse.”

With support from the Nursing Access Program, implemented to address the shortage of Inuit nurses in coastal communities, she completed an RN diploma program at the Western Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Corner Brook, N.L., in 1996. “Turnover of nurses was high here, so it was thought that if we trained our own,” Pamak explains, “we’d be more likely to stay. It’s true that most people from the coast have a strong connection to their community and to the land and water.”

Pamak was hired for short-term nursing contracts before returning to her hometown of Nain, where she worked in a clinic and in public health. In 2005, she accepted a newly created position in home care in Hopedale.

Her responsibilities change from day to day, depending on her clients’ needs, but include diabetes management, home oxygen, well-elderly programs and wound care. She also coordinates Hopedale’s home support program.

“I like the fact that I’m not in one building all day long,” Pamak says. “I’m out in the community, going from one place to another.” She travels by snowmobile in winter and by ATV in summer. Most of her work is with seniors, for whom Inuktitut is the main language. Not having to always speak English all the time is another of the job’s perks.

Pamak travels by ATV
Teckles Photography Inc.On the road: Pamak travels by ATV or snowmobile to visit patients.

“I’m a cheery, bubbly person,” she adds. “I don’t know how you would manage in this kind of job without a sense of humour. I try to appreciate the day-to-day successes — people showing up for appointments, for example. It’s the small things that make change. It’s not realistic to think we will get rid of diabetes, but I can see the difference we’ve been able to make over the years.”

The toughest part of the job is palliative care: “It’s heartbreaking. But I know if my position didn’t exist, people in the community wouldn’t be able to come home. They used to die alone in a hospital down south; now they have loved ones around them.”

She is active on several boards and committees that address her special interests in housing, health, culture and language issues. She served seven years on the board of the Inuit Diabetes Network, many of them as its chair. “It was one of the aboriginal organizations affected by federal cuts,” she says. “I was really disappointed; we had promoted awareness of diabetes and encouraged the sharing of knowledge among different Inuit regions.”

Pamak has five courses left to complete a bachelor of nursing degree from Athabasca University. “Getting my degree is something I’ve wanted to do since graduation,” she says. “Of course, with work and family, even part-time studies are challenging.” That said, she would like to do a master’s degree at some point. She makes time for fitness and self-defence classes and her church sewing group, where she produces slippers, pualuk (mitts) and other local crafts.

Pamak, her common-law husband and their two boys live a traditional lifestyle as much as possible. They hunt, fish and gather, depending on the season, and are doing their part to preserve the language. “I spoke only Inuktitut to our sons until they were three. I use it whenever I can, with those who understand it and with babies and young children — just so they hear it.”

“Many clients tell me they are glad they can have conversations in Inuktitut with their nurse,” Pamak adds. “They don’t have to worry about important information being lost in translation, and they can fully participate in decisions about their health.”

10 questions with Sophie Pamak

What is one word you would use to describe yourself? 

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I’d be allergy free

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
My shoe size LOL — children’s 1-2 or women’s 4½

Where did you go on your last vacation?
Eastern Passage, N.S.

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
Any of the Scandinavian countries

What is your biggest regret?
Not completing my BN before having started our family

What was the last good book you read? 
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Who inspired you to become a nurse?
My grandmother and my grandfather, who always said we Inuit are smart, strong people and can do whatever we set our mind to. He suggested I could become the first Inuk prime minister

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Listen to your gut

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.

I’d bring in more Inuktitut interpreters/translators and aboriginal patient navigator
Leah Geller is a freelance health and science writer in Ottawa.
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