Oct 01, 2015
By Leah Geller

Getting the job done

After more than five decades in nursing, Marilyn Sark’s commitment to the health and well-being of communities large and small hasn’t waned

Teckles Photography Inc.

In 1972, a bridge was built to link Lennox Island to Prince Edward Island’s northwest coast. Until then, a fishing boat served as a public ferry for its few hundred Mi’kmaq residents. In the winter, Marilyn Sark recalls, the ice had to be crossed by foot, horse and sleigh, or snowmobile.

Sark grew up on Lennox Island. “Because we were almost a mile off the coast, people made the trip to the doctor only when they were really sick. This was strictly acute care; there was no emphasis on prevention. Many women had to have their babies at home. We had no health services of our own.”

Sark completed her B.Sc. in nursing in 1963 at Mount Saint Vincent University while in training at the Halifax Infirmary school of nursing. She was the first person from Lennox Island to get a university degree, and the first aboriginal woman in P.E.I. to get a degree in nursing. “To be honest, I went to university only because I was considered too young for nursing practice when I graduated from high school. I wasn’t that keen at first, but the degree came in handy!”

At the beginning of her career, Sark accepted positions as a clinical instructor in psychiatric nursing and surgical nursing in Charlottetown hospitals. Later, once she was a new mom, she switched to general duty nursing and casual shifts.

As the bridge was being built, Sark returned to Lennox Island with her husband, Jack, and four young sons. She was determined to connect the members of her community with the health care they needed. “I approached the chief of council, and we managed to get Health Canada to provide funding for the band council to hire a local part-time nurse.”

Not surprisingly, she was the successful candidate, and she set up her practice in a couple of rooms in a small ground-floor apartment near the general store. “My day included everything from calls about a leaky roof to dealing with a broken toe,” Sark laughs. “I was on call 24/7 because I was also the half-time welfare officer.”

Sark reached out to the province’s social service agencies, addictions experts, public health nurses and other health-care professionals to secure ongoing health services and was enthusiastically received. She was on her way, with prevention and health promotion as her goals. In those early years, she initiated an immunization program, offered prenatal classes and care, and set up parenting courses. She organized Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and arranged dental appointments. If her patients didn’t have cars, she coordinated transportation for them.

In another of the firsts that distinguish her career, she established a community health board with representation from youth, men, mothers and seniors. Such governance structures did not exist in other First Nations communities. “I was working alone at first and wanted to get input on what the concerns were and run ideas by other people,” Sark explains. “I point out to health-care teams these days that they’re lucky to have one another to talk things over with.”

In the 1980s, funding was approved for her to transition to full-time community health nurse, and she continued in this role until 1992. A dedicated health centre was constructed in the mid-1990s. It was a wonderful moment for Lennox Island, Sark says. Currently, the interdisciplinary care team also includes a home care nurse, a community health representative, family support workers, alcohol and drug workers, and visiting health-care professionals.

During the next two decades, she took her advocacy efforts in new directions, including serving as health education coordinator for Lennox Island First Nation and as president of the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada and of the Aboriginal Women’s Association of PEI (AWAPEI). Today, at age 73, she maintains her practice, working for the province as a casual nurse in outpatient addiction services.

Her involvement in local, regional, provincial and national organizations is a source of pride and inspiration. In 2003, she and other AWAPEI members obtained project funding to raise awareness about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. “We started out by educating health-care professionals, school teachers, probation officers and lawyers, showing them that FASD was a real concern for everyone living in P.E.I.”

Over time, the project’s mandate expanded : “We’re looking at what all children need to be safe, secure and happy.” As FASD project coordinator and facilitator of child development teams for Lennox Island and nearby Abegweit First Nation, Sark leads workshops for members of a number of professions whose work involves children and parents.

Sark and her efforts have been recognized many times over the years. The awards include the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal and Lennox Island’s Citizen of the Year. In October, she will accept a Senior Islanders of the Year Award from her province. When asked about the accolades, Sark merely says, “You just do your job, whatever’s in front of you to be done.”

10 questions with Marilyn Sark

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I would like to be more comfortable with public speaking

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Bringing health services to Lennox Island and serving as its first community health nurse

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
How shy I really am

Where did you go on your last vacation?
A family trip to Disney World in Orlando

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.

What was the last good book you read? 
Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Nancy Mitchell-Autio and LeAnn Thieman

Who inspired you to become a nurse? 
A nun who was a nurse in our community and the nurses who cared for me in hospital when I was a child

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
To obtain a degree along with a licence to practise while I was still young

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I would like to see more mental health and addiction services in P.E.I.

Leah Geller is a freelance health and science journalist in Ottawa.

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