Hope and healing

Aboriginal Elder Betty Ross provides spiritual care to those in need

Aboriginal Elder Betty Ross provides spiritual care to those in need
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About Aboriginal Health Programs

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2010

A sense of anticipation hangs in the air as the patients, one by one, file into the large, bright meeting room inside the Seven Oaks General Hospital.

Some are in wheelchairs pushed by hospital staff, others walk in on their own, dragging their IV poles behind them. Some are accompanied by family members, some are not.

As they slowly take their places, forming a large circle in the middle of the room, a slight woman wearing a pink top and flowing skirt steps forward and begins to speak. In a few minutes, Betty Ross, a spiritual adviser with the Winnipeg Health Region, will perform a smudge - a sacred Aboriginal ceremony for cleansing body, mind and spirit. But first there is a moment for reflection.

"I always like to start with a prayer in my own language," says Ross, whose first language is Cree. Ross prays and everyone bows their heads. She finishes with English and speaks about being thankful for all the blessings in her life.

Next, Ross talks about the four sacred medicines - sage, tobacco, cedar and sweet grass - that will be used in the smudge. Samples of the fragrant dried plants are passed around, each member of the circle taking the opportunity to examine them.

Ready to begin, Ross explains the process for those who might be unfamiliar. She says she'll burn the medicines and make her way around the circle, so participants can waft the smoke over their bodies as a spiritual, physical, mental and emotional cleansing.

The medicines are placed in a bowl and a match is lit. The room fills with an intoxicating aroma. Each person takes a turn wafting the smoke over their body and Ross fans the burning medicines with her sacred eagle feather. For those who can't move easily, Ross bends down and wafts the smoke over them, from head to toe.

Once the smudge ends, Ross initiates a sharing circle, in which participants have a chance to share their feelings, thoughts or fears. A sharing circle allows everyone to share and vent without being judged. Being able to talk about emotions helps encourage spiritual and emotional healing. A talking stick, another sacred item, is held by each speaker and is passed to the next when they're done. Only the person holding the stick can talk.

Patient Rosie Ellen Evans says spiritual ceremonies like this one are important to the healing process. Evans lost her leg to diabetes and is constantly battling with the disease, but when she heard about a smudge happening in hospital, she felt renewed hope and excitement.

"I was really waiting. I could hardly believe it," she says. The event was emotional for Evans, who admits the ceremony brought her to tears. "It's very important, if you're into spirituality, to have these medicines given to us by the Creator," she says. "It helps me. I feel so alive . . . so good when I smudge, I can't explain the feeling. I cry."

Through her work, Ross performs ceremonies like these every week for patients and staff at clinics and hospitals throughout the Region. Other times, she provides spiritual support right at a patient's bedside, often just by listening. The positive effects of the smudge, sharing circle and other Aboriginal ceremonies play into the healing journey of the patient involved and can be a calming experience for their families. Whether far from home, away from an Elder they might normally talk to, or facing major medical issues - patients and their families can find refuge in these sacred traditions in the midst of a stressful time.

While Ross does teachings, sharing circles and drum songs with patients, it is the smudge ceremony that is most often requested. "Sometimes after a smudging ceremony, people don't know how to break out of it. We feel that embrace of hope," explains Ross, pausing and closing her eyes as she tries to define the experience. "There are no words to describe it. It's very special."

Ross sees first contact with the patient as being a crucial moment. She approaches patients humbly, knowing trust can often be hard-earned for a variety of reasons. "Most of our people keep so much inside," she says, noting that a history of oppression has fuelled this mindset. Speaking softly, Ross often uses a little humour and a bit of Cree when first meeting a patient. The 63-year-old's slight frame, friendly smile and comforting nature exude honesty. She introduces herself, explains her role to the patient and meets their family.

"Definitely if the person is Aboriginal, and they're able to meet with an Aboriginal staff member, there's trust because of that similarity," says Denise Thomas, psychiatric nurse at Health Science Centre. "Especially if they can talk to someone in their own language - that's an even bigger connection." Thomas explains that Aboriginal patients can shy away from asking questions of some doctors or nurses, maybe because of their upbringing, but they feel comfortable asking an Aboriginal care provider. Making this connection means better meeting patients' health needs.

Ross works specifically through the Region's Aboriginal Health Programs - Health Services. Based at three hospitals, with mobile teams for other Region sites, Aboriginal Health Services is available to all Aboriginal people receiving care within the Region and also offers interpreters, discharge planners and patient advocates. Requests for services come to AHS's Central Intake Line from health-care providers or patients.

Aboriginal Health Programs was initially developed after a Region review in the early 1990s. The review highlighted how a significant number of patients were Aboriginal and that specialized care and services would increase Aboriginal wellness. "We recognize that each patient needs to be understood, and there needs to be an open line of communication, in order for each patient to receive the best care," says Dr. Catherine Cook, Vice-President of Population and Aboriginal Health with WRHA.

Ross credits the Creator in bringing her to a point in her life where she can help others in their healing journeys, after experiencing her own.

Originally from Cross Lake First Nation, Ross faced tough barriers early in life. She vaguely remembers being abandoned and homeless at the age of three. "I slept under overturned canoes," Ross recalls. "I remember it was dark, cold and lonely." A family took her in and Ross's new father would greatly impact her life with a traditional upbringing. One morning when Ross was a child she woke up to find her father crying at the foot of her bed. He told her he had dreamed of Ross's future and it was very dreary.

He began teaching her traditional ways, the Cree language, and traditional survival skills. He told her she needed to always remember she had a light burning deep inside of her, and with prayers and being a good person, her light would grow stronger and help her through the dark times. Ross would carry this sacred teaching close to her heart during the time she spent at two residential schools.

"I remember the beatings. The verbal abuse." One time Ross had spoken a word in Cree and was punished by being thrown on the ground and kicked in the head. That kick permanently damaged Ross's hearing in her left ear. Despite the abuse, Ross never cried. "I would never give them the satisfaction." She never told her parents about the abuse she endured because she wanted them to know she was behaving well.

Ross secretly vowed to keep her language and retaliated in silent ways, such as excelling at her penmanship despite swollen hands that had been hit when she couldn't memorize bible verses. She also kept her father's teachings strong in her mind. "My father's words always echoed in my head."

Following high school, Ross went to university for a degree in social work. One day the Dalai Lama visited the school and picked Ross out of the crowd. He blessed her and gave her some sweet grass (which she still has in her office), telling her she would need to use it for her people. Ross had no idea she'd be using sweet grass in smudges as a spiritual care provider many years later. Ross also married but her partner passed away before the time when Ross really began her healing journey.

It was 15 years ago, when her first grandson was born, that she started to come to terms with what had happened in her life. She had learned from Elders along the way and started acquiring her own sacred items such as her eagle feather, talking stick and healing drum - all which she uses with patients, family and staff today.

"I feel so rich," Ross says about her life. Ross has four children and seven grandkids. She takes care of two of her grandsons, aged 9 and 10. Her eyes twinkle when talking about the boys, and she credits them with helping her rebuild and strengthen during her healing journey. "Because they are so close to the Creator, they walk with one foot in the spirit world," she says, smiling.

Ross has made peace with her past and believes the Creator has and always will guide her in her journey. Working as an Aboriginal Health Services interpreter for many years, Ross has allowed her life to unfold as it would, confident that her need to help patients and their need for spiritual and cultural care would eventually be recognized.

Today, Ross helps numerous families, patients and staff within the Winnipeg Health Region. She is very respectful of the position she has been given, being able to help others every day. Each request is a chance for Ross to use her experience to help others heal, and her faith has her embracing her journeys, no matter how big or small. "We need to be thankful for every breath and step we take on Mother Earth."

Amie Lesyk is a communications associate with Aboriginal Health Services.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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