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In pursuit of a dream

Indigenous students explore careers in health care

MCEP students

The 2016 MCEP graduating class includes Brianna Ross (from left), Andrea Jawbone, Charlene Harper, Raven Michelle, Brendan Govereau, Brittney Ferland, Gordon Parisian, Kaya Flett, Celine Ponace. Missing: Jaylene Wood.

BY SUSIE STRACHAN
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, July / August 2016

When Raven Michelle learned that Children of the Earth High School offered students internships in a variety of health-care professions, she immediately knew she wanted in.

The Grade 12 student had been intrigued with the idea of working in health care ever since she caught a glimpse of an ultrasound image showing her sister’s unborn child, so the chance to learn more about a potential career signified a terrific opportunity. 

There was only one problem. Applications to the Medical Careers Exploration Program (MCEP) at Children of the Earth are usually only taken from Grade 9 students, and Michelle was already halfway through Grade 12 at another high school.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Michelle transferred to Children of the Earth earlier this year to go directly into MCEP.

The school was happy to accommodate a student who was clearly willing to go to extra lengths to get in, says Stacie Onofriechuk, a teacher in MCEP at Children of the Earth. “If we have a space open in the program, we do our best to open up that opportunity to students who want to work in this area,” she says.

In an average year, there are 12 spaces available to Grade 10 students, and all spots are filled quickly. For the fall of 2016, when a new Grade 10 class will start, there were 15 applicants, with three of those being placed on a waiting list.

“Whenever a space opens up, we try to bring in new students who have an interest in the classes,” says Onofriechuk.

Launched in 2007, MCEP was created by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s Pan Am Clinic and the Winnipeg School Division, in part to help boost the number of Indigenous people working in the health-care system. Currently, Indigenous people make up about 11 per cent of the population (according to the 2011 Census), but only six per cent work in health care.

Students enrolled in the program at Children of the Earth take the usual core subjects, plus the MCEP course, which is designed to support clinical practicums at various facilities in the city, including the Pan Am Clinic, Health Sciences Centre, Red River College and the Grace Hospital.

The course includes material on the body’s systems, anatomy, physiology, and customer service. The students also learn traditional Indigenous ways of healing and medicine, and work on information communication technologies to enhance their computer skills.

Students receive $1,000 toward post-secondary education from the province’s Bright Futures program for each year of high school they complete.

Michelle is not the only young person who recognizes the value of the program.

As Onofriechuk explains, MCEP is so well-respected that former students have taken to encouraging younger family members to apply. “We have younger siblings and cousins following each other through now,” she says.

The program does not keep track of students after they have left the program, but a number of graduates are known to be following their dream of working in health care. They include 2013 graduates Colten Pratt, who is now working as a paramedic with the City of Winnipeg, Emmy Sky-Gaskin, who is completing a health-care aide course, and Amy Bousquet, who is in her third year of university, pursuing psychiatric health nursing. In addition, Ocean White and Steven Sward, who both graduated from last year’s program, have recently completed first year science at university.

“Since the beginning, we’ve had around 40 to 50 graduates,” says Onofriechuk. “Some of them do come in to visit with us, and let us know how they’re doing. It’s always wonderful to see how well everyone is doing after they’ve left high school.”

Brittney Ferland is intrigued by the spiritual side of health care, including the emotional support that Indigenous patients need.

“When I visited the spiritual health department at Grace, I got to talk to them about how they work with patients on their emotions, and get them through trauma. They told me that they need an advisor on Indigenous spirituality, which is great,” says Ferland.

Ferland has a two-year-old son, Eli, whose birth slowed down, but didn’t stop, her quest to complete the Medical Careers Exploration Program. In 2016, she took Grade 11 courses, and the Grade 12 practicum placements, in order to keep up with her peers. “I kept up with my school work, and I’m really happy to have done all the placements this year.”

She’s planning to complete her Grade 12 courses at Children of the Earth in the fall. For the future, she’s looking into training as a nurse at Red River College. “They have an overseas practicum, and I’d love to travel,” she says. “I love doing hands-on work, and I like interacting with the patients.”

Some of her favourite memories of the past year include shadowing nurses, watching surgery at Pan Am Clinic, and playing with the young patients at Children’s Hospital.

Working in the X-ray suite at the Grace Hospital brings back memories for Kaya Flett.

When she was in Grade 2, she broke her leg. After an X-ray was taken, her leg was put into a cast. “I had to wear that for a whole month,” she says. “It sure slowed me down. But it gives me an idea of what it’s like for people when they come in to be treated for a broken bone. They’re already in pain, so the X-ray has to be taken carefully, to not hurt them as it’s being done.”

The oldest of five siblings, Flett finds she’s drawn to nursing, and is thinking of applying to the University of Manitoba. “I’ve always helped my mom at home, so that gives me direction. I’d like to work with babies and young children,” she says.

A conscientious student, Flett likes to lead by example, says teacher Stacie Onofriechuk, adding that Flett is also a gifted artist.

When it comes to the future, Brendan Govereau not only has himself to think about, he also has his two-year-old son, Eli.

“Having a son has changed my life,” says Govereau. “I have to consider him in everything I do from now on.”

Along with maintaining good marks in MCEP, particularly in math, biology and chemistry, Govereau has enjoyed learning about the different careers available in health care. He’s seen shoulder surgery performed at the Pan Am Clinic, watched how ill patients are treated in the ICU at the Grace Hospital, and had a chance to train on the simulated patients used by nursing and paramedic students at Red River College.

He’s considering applying to the social work program at the University of Manitoba, but also likes the idea of becoming a paramedic.

“I’m attracted to both areas,” says Govereau. “We met Colten Pratt, a former MCEP student, who went on to train as a paramedic. He’s inspired a lot of us.”

“Brendan is a wonderful father, and a very dedicated student,” says teacher Stacie Onofriechuk. “He’s ready to take on the world.”

Enrolling in MCEP has become a Harper family tradition. Charlene is the second in her family to follow this track in high school. Her older sister, Shanae Harper, who is graduating from Children of the Earth High School this year, has done so previously and plans to become a funeral director.

“My younger sister and brother are also in the MCEP now,” says Harper. “The program is very rewarding, and it encourages us to think about a health-care career after high school.”

Harper has applied to take environmental science at the University of Manitoba, eventually hoping to work in rural areas of the province.

She’s enjoyed her Grade 12 placements at the health-care facilities, including shadowing nurses, changing dressings, watching surgeries and more. “I enjoyed the Pan Am Clinic, in that it’s small, but has a depth of services. I’ve been to all their departments, and I got to speak to all sorts of health-care people about their jobs.”

Harper really blossomed this past year in high school into a respectful and confident young woman, with a flair for mathematics. “She quite often was asking questions about the math problems, before I’d finished writing them out,” says Onofriechuk. “She loves the theory behind the math, which helps when balancing that to the practical aspects of math.”

One of the most interesting parts of MCEP placements for Andrea Jawbone was when she worked in the same department at Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg that her mother was treated in.

“My mom was at HSC for brain surgery a year ago,” she says. “I went back there for two weeks to job shadow the workers. It really gave me a different perspective, to see how much the workers care for their patients, and what it takes to keep them healthy.”

Jawbone moved from Tadoule Lake in order to join MCEP, and has been enjoying the fact that the class is small and focused on health care. When she’s not busy with schoolwork, she enjoys playing the piano and drawing anime characters.

“I’ve been accepted to the University of Manitoba in the fall, and I’ll be studying science,” she says. “My aim is to be a physician’s assistant.”

Jawbone would win every attendance award in high school, say her teachers, adding that she always was very supportive of her fellow MCEP students. “She’s another one of our artists who put amazing art all over her assignments,” says teacher Stacie Onofriechuk. “She took Raven (Michelle) under her wing, showing her how to do things, like how to take the bus out to the Grace Hospital for the placements.”

Raven Michelle became interested in pursuing a career in health care after  watching her sister have an ultrasound done on her unborn baby.

She asked her teachers at R.B. Russell High School if they could help her find out how to train as an ultrasound tech.

Those teachers found out about Medical Careers Exploration Program (MCEP) at Children of the Earth High School and made an appointment for Michelle to visit the school to see if she could transfer over to the program.

“I switched as soon as I could,” she says. “I love MCEP. We’ve been to Health Sciences Centre to watch neurosurgery, and worked in the ICU there. We learned what physician assistants do, when we spent two weeks at Concordia Hospital. Then we went to Red River College and got a feel for their animal services, X-ray, nursing and paramedic programs.” She especially enjoyed visiting with the dental hygiene students
at Red River.

Meeting former MCEP student Colten Pratt – who is now a paramedic – gave Michelle the inspiration to train in the same field. She needs to complete chemistry and pre-calculus math courses in the fall at university. “And then I need to get my driver’s licence, so I can sign up for the paramedic course at Red River,” she says.

Michelle is very determined and mature for her age, according to her teachers. “I teach an ethical dilemma section in science, and Raven really enjoyed this. She had to learn how to make a statement, and how to support the one she chose,” says teacher Kirsten Dobriansky.

“She was very passionate about this, and always had great reasons and explanations. She thinks everything through thoroughly and immerses herself in the topics.”

Gordon Parisian moved from Sagkeeng to Winnipeg in order to get into Children of the Earth High School. At first, he didn’t know much about MCEP, but when he developed an interest in chemistry, he knew he wanted to be part of the program.

“Originally, I thought all health-care careers were for doctors or nurses,” he says. “I liked Pan Am Clinic because it has many different types of health-care workers there.

Everyone from the admitting clerks to the surgeons took an interest in us. Surgery is much more intense than I thought it would be, and yet at the same time, the surgeons are pretty laid back. They like to dim the lights and play music while they work.”

One of his favourite placements this past year was in radiation departments at the various health-care sites, where he learned how radiation is used to diagnose and treat patients who have cancer. 

He has his post-graduation sights set on going into nuclear medicine, with the first step taken when he starts at the University of Manitoba this fall. Eventually, he’d like to train as a radiation technologist.

Parisian is very confident and personable, with a strong sense of who he is, according to his teachers. “He’s also very aware of his culture, and has won a bursary from the Manitoba Aboriginal Youth Achievement Awards,” says teacher Stacie Onofriechuk.
Parisian is planning to work this summer in site maintenance with the Winnipeg School Division.

Celine Ponace is following in the footsteps of her older sister Shaylene. Both of them have graduated from the Medical Careers Exploration Program at Children of the Earth High School. 

“My sister Shayleen is already training to become a nurse,” says Ponace, who plans to study science next year at the University of Winnipeg. “Shaylene told me this program was a great opportunity to learn lots about what I can do in health care. It gives me a chance to work with the patients, and it makes me happy to help people get better,” she says, noting that she also has two younger cousins in the program.

Ponace was another late addition to the program, joining in Grade 12, after becoming interested in what she was reading in her older sister’s textbooks.

She’s interested in working as a mental health worker, possibly as a psychologist.
“My mom was my dad’s caregiver when he came home from hospital. Watching her helped me be really sympathetic toward what he was going through. This really prompted me to look into working in mental health.”

Her teachers say that Ponace achieved very high marks in her classes and also attendance, which allowed her to transfer into the program this year.

“Celine has a particular interest in biology and genetics,” says teacher Kirsten Dobriansky. “She’s another one of our artists. She did an amazing piece on phenotypes and genotypes for science. In fact, a lot of her assignments were handed in with art augmenting the homework.”

Every time an ambulance goes by, Brianna Ross looks at it and thinks, “That will be me, in a few years.”

She has her sights set on becoming a paramedic, something she’s always wanted to be. The MCEP has allowed her to meet people who work as paramedics, and take a look at the training she’ll need in order to become one herself.

“I’ll be going to University One in the fall, and taking pre-calculus math, chemistry and biology,” says Ross, adding that this will help her get ready for applying to Red River College in another year, for the paramedic program.

When Ross isn’t at school, she helps take care of her siblings, and loves to work out and play basketball. She has an uncle who is encouraging her to take up the sports of wrestling and mixed martial arts. “When we did the graduation photos, Brianna brought her mom and siblings to the school,” says teacher Kirsten Dobriansky. “She truly tries to be a good role model to her younger siblings.”

Exercise, fresh food and her grandfather are the motivation behind Jaylene Wood’s aspiration to become a nurse and a dietitian.

Type 2 diabetes runs in her family, and affects many people in her home community of Island Lakes and Garden Hill. Wood says that many people could lead healthier lives if they had the right guidance.

“My grandfather, Larry Wood, worked in the north, getting people to grow gardens. He also got exercise equipment for people to use, and talked to them about their health,” she says.

Another spark that got Wood interested in MCEP was visiting a cousin in hospital, and seeing the health-care staff. “They helped her in so many ways, ways I couldn’t,” she says. “I want to help people with their health. So I’ve applied to the Aboriginal Access program at University of Manitoba. I’m aiming at nursing.”

What people eat also inspires her. “Eating traditional food from the land, like blueberries and fish, and growing vegetables, is a way to be healthy. I like to incorporate my culture in everything I do, and that includes health care and eating healthy food.”

Wood is one of the amazing artists in the 2016 group of graduates, says teacher Stacie Onofriechuk. “She’s always tying her art into everything.”

Wave: November / December 2015

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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