May 01, 2018
By Laura Eggertson

In her northern element

Laureen Pameolik says she could not imagine living and working anywhere other than in her home community of Arviat

Teckles Photography Inc.

Laureen Pameolik was seven years old when a nurse at Nunavut’s Arviat Health Centre told her that one day she, too, could work there.

Dorothy Myhal-Gely gave Pameolik a toy doctor’s kit with a stethoscope and syringe. It was a seminal moment for the girl, who grew up visiting nurses at the health centre where her mother, Mary, worked as an interpreter for Myhal-Gely and the other non-Inuit nurses and doctors who flew in to the remote community.

“Right from then, I always wanted to be a nurse,” Pameolik says.

Today, Pameolik, 44, is a community health nurse at the centre — one of two Inuk nurses there.

After graduating from Arviat’s first Grade 12 class, she attended Aurora College’s Northern Nursing Diploma Program in Yellowknife. During her first week in the nursing school, instructors showed the students how to crease the corners of the sheets on a hospital bed.

Since Arviat’s nurses are more accustomed to jury-rigging a communications system than tucking in hospital corners, that first lesson was quite a culture shock.

“I thought I was in the wrong program,” Pameolik says. “After that, though, things went smoothly and I received incredible training from wonderful nurse instructors.”

She arrived back in Arviat, diploma in hand, in the midst of an outbreak of respiratory syncytial virus. The nurse mentoring her handed over a stethoscope and put her to work monitoring very sick babies.

“Whoever was ill enough was put on a medevac to a hospital; I think we put six babies on a plane. I have been running at work non-stop since that first day.”

Pameolik has served the community of about 3,100 for two decades, under conditions that would test the most highly skilled nurses anywhere. She and her colleagues treat, stabilize and medevac clients; conduct prenatal, well-baby, chronic illness and well-woman clinics; and sometimes deliver babies — all without an on-site lab, diagnostic imaging technicians or a birthing centre.

The centre operates 8:30 to 5, Monday to Friday, with the nurses rotating through an on-call system to cover after-hours and weekends for emergencies. They work against the backdrop of the territory’s high rates of tuberculosis, suicide, sexually transmitted infections, poverty and overcrowding. These underlying factors result in a lot of unhealthy Inuit, Pameolik says.

“I have seen poverty that inhibits access to healthy foods and a proper diet. This leads to chronic illnesses like anemia, malnourishment, infections and slow wound healing. Overcrowding makes it easier to spread communicable diseases like TB and respiratory infections. High rates of suicide cause stress, feelings of hopelessness and despair in those family and friends left behind.

“We are the first point of contact for all the cases,” she continues. “We get the history, the vitals, order the tests, draw blood, do X-rays, refer them to doctors — we have to do the full assessment. We do all the treatment and consult with the doctor when we have to.”

The hectic pace is their biggest challenge, she says, although constant staff turnover and equipment shortages call for additional specialized skills and creativity. One of her friends has joked that they have to become MacGyver nurses on a regular basis.

Arviat has the territory’s highest birthrate, with about 80 pregnancies a year. All pregnant women are supposed to fly to Rankin Inlet or Winnipeg to have their babies, but Pameolik and her colleagues end up delivering six to eight babies annually. Those births include the premature infants or babies of those who have hidden their pregnancies so they don’t have to leave the community to deliver.

Pameolik, who manages the prenatal program, says obstetrical nursing brings her the most satisfaction, and she looks forward to the day that Arviat will have its own birthing centre.

Although living and working in the community she grew up in means there is the potential to be overwhelmed by the constant demand for her services, she sets boundaries.

“When I’m not on call, I’m a grandmother and a mother. I have to separate myself from my work.”

When people reach her on her cellphone for health advice, she refers them to the centre for appointments. But if she notices someone who might need attention — like a boy she saw in church recently who looked far too pale — she follows up with a quick phone call to get the person into the centre to be checked.

As the mother of four — her youngest son is still in high school — and grandmother of three, her community life outside of work is absorbing. To relax, she camps out on the land, cheers her grandson on at hockey games, watches the local dog team races, and fishes. Her mission in life is to catch an Arctic char. “When I catch my first char, the whole town will know and there will be games and a feast,” she jokes.

As one of only about 10 Inuk nurses working in Nunavut, Pameolik is conscious of her position as a role model. She knows the value for her clients of having a nurse who can speak Inuktitut and comprehend their needs without the help of an interpreter. “They trust me to look after them, and we completely understand each other.”

She has happily taken on the role of health-care career promoter with her younger clients. “Because of what Dorothy did for me — saying ‘You should be a nurse’ — I tell the little people now that they are going to finish school, become a nurse or doctor and help me at the health centre. Their eyes light up and they are smiling. I need to get hold of a bunch of toy stethoscopes to give away instead of stickers.”

10 questions with Laureen Pameolik

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I’d like to expand my education. I need to keep on learning, keep up with skills and professional development.

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Working at the clinic for 20 years!

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
A lot of people don’t know that it has already been 20 years!

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Fish wherever I could catch my first char

Where did you go on your last vacation?
To Jasper in February with my parents. My mother was in awe of the mountains; we come from flat lands, the tundra.

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
An Alaska fishing lodge. Imagine the salmon in the rivers among the mountains…

What is your biggest regret?
Not completing my nurse practitioner program

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
To leave your work behind at 5 p.m. My home life and work life are balanced, thankfully.

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I would like to see more nurses. More Inuk nurses would be even better.

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.

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