From tent birth to Inuk nurse: Growing up in, and out of, Nunavik, part four
“Inuit were not used to one of their own being a nurse and the French did not have any experience working with Inuit nurses”
Minnie Akparook, born near Great Whale River, went to school in Churchill, Man., finished nursing school and became one of the first Inuk nurses to practice in Nunavik in the 1990s. She eventually specialized in diabetes treatment and prevention which she considers one of the region’s most important public health challenges.
In a five-part series, Akparook recounts her experiences, good and bad, growing up during the social upheaval in the North of the 1960s and 1970s and what she learned about Inuit mental and physical health. Today we publish part four in the series.
In 1994, I had applied to work in Puvirnituq Centre Hospitalier de la Baie d’Hudson but was having trouble obtaining a nursing license for Quebec. They said they couldn’t verify that I qualified and the language problem was rearing its ugly head. It dragged on for three months. A year had passed since my graduation.
But the language most spoken in Nunavik after Inuktitut is English. So we did not really understand what the hold-up was. Finally, in the end, Robert, my husband, had gotten hold of a Makivik Corp. lawyer who went right to the college of nurses in Montreal. I got my Quebec license two days later.
When you work continuously over time, you become a well-oiled team and get to know how your teammate is going to act and what their objectives will be. I worked in the “département” in the Centre Hospitalier de la Baie d’Hudson for 13 years, a 25-bed general ward in Puvirnituq.
The learning-to-work-together part was a vertical climb. Inuit were not used to one of their own being a nurse and the French did not have any experience working with Inuit nurses. It was a new challenge every day to come to work. But I did it and I am proud that I did it.
One of the duties was to be on-call for medevacs and one-on-one nursing for critical patients. There were many dramatic medevacs during that time but I will only describe a few.
One of the medevacs was for a very drunk man. The medevac plane was usually a Twin Otter. The patient was mostly unconscious/asleep. Whenever he woke up he would become violent, flailing about, so every time he woke up I would inject him with a sedative.
I had him in a four-point restraint but he would work free because, as a nurse, you have to judge between tight enough and not too tight when you restrain.
He had a catheter on and it was almost full. I had to evaluate his output every 15 minutes. He was briefly awake at one point when I did that. He waited until I was not looking and opened the catheter bag clasp. The urine spilled all over the plane’s floor; after that, the whole plane smelled of booze, vomit and urine.
Another memorable medevac was a woman with an ectopic pregnancy. I was on-call that night. The woman was awake when I arrived but she was on a stretcher in the emergency room. She said she had been in Puvirnituq for a couple of days coming in every day with abdominal pain but was never admitted. But today the pain didn’t go away.
About an hour in, she became unconscious. We were preparing to send her to Kuujjuaraapik. Two nurses were supposed to go, myself included, plus a doctor. The doctor ordered compression leggings. Boy, are those hard to put on a person who is unconscious!
We were infusing two IVs and two bags of blood in her at the end. We were practically milking the fluid and the blood into her by the time we were leaving Puvirnituq. It was obvious things were not going well and had the potential to get worse.
It was kind of a scary medevac where things could go south very fast. In view of that, one of our colleagues did not want to come on the medevac and there was an ugly fight which involved screaming and crying. There was even verbal fighting inside the ambulance while we were transporting the patient to the airport in the ambulance. It was high drama.
Finally, we took off. The flight to Kuujjuaraapik takes more than an hour on the Twin Otter and the doctor ordered vital signs every five minutes—blood pressure, oximeter, pulse. I was doing the vital signs and the doctor would scream she couldn’t hear the blood pressure result if I didn’t shout it out.
In those days you couldn’t set the machine on automatic to do it every five minutes—it was just me doing it. We handed off the staff to another plane in Kuujjuaraapik at around 3 a.m. The Twin pilots could not fly us back to Puvirnituq because of their hour overage so we ended up in the hotel. We hadn’t eaten all day. I had a Cherry Blossom that I found in my packsack so we shared that and fell asleep soon after.
I was working in the département when the Twin Towers were hit on Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City. I was on-call for medevacs at midnight that night. All airplanes were grounded all over the globe but I was flying around. I saw in the news the few dots of airplanes that flew that day and they didn’t even have the decency to put my dot on the map.
One of the interesting patients I had during that time was a lady who arrived in a stretcher from the nursing station. She had bruises and scratches all over her body. She was not horribly drunk but you could smell a bit of alcohol on her breath. During the assessment stage, she kept saying she fell down the stairs outside her house but there were too many injuries for that to be true.
The doctor and I kept questioning her and asking her if she wanted to press charges against someone for beating her. She swore that she fell down the stairs. That evening a woman from the village went to counsel her. Her advice was not to separate from her husband and that leaving didn’t solve any problems—that it is more “Godly” to stay with him and to talk it out and pray.
The next morning I was back. Verification that it had been a beating showed up. On her back, bruises in patterns of hands emerged. The doctor was trying to find out if he could press charges because the woman did not want to charge her husband. It was a clash of two cultures and their beliefs.
Return to Nunatsiaqonline.ca tomorrow for the final part in this five-part memoir from Minnie Akparook, including her observations on how to address public health issues in Nunavik.