Two Soli­tudes

Geist - - Notes & Dispatches - MAŁ­GORZATA NOWACZYK

Soon af­ter I moved from Poland to Canada, I was sent to the Sioux Look­out Zone Hos­pi­tal as part of my pe­di­atrics train­ing. In the bare white ex­am­in­ing room I ex­plained to an In­dige­nous couple that we needed to catheter­ize their daughter’s blad­der. She had had sev­eral in­fec­tions and just fin­ished a long course of an­tibi­otics. “We need urine straight from her blad­der to make sure that all the bac­te­ria are killed in there,” I said. The fa­ther left the room af­ter I had fin­ished de­scrib­ing the pro­ce­dure; I as­sumed that he meant to give his daughter pri­vacy. His wife stayed be­hind and, as I re­trieved the ster­ile med­i­cal tray from the cup­board, she stroked the girl’s long hair. I cov­ered the girl with a white linen sheet. Her brown eyes stared up at me. “It doesn’t hurt,” I said and pat­ted her leg. I washed her hair­less per­ineum with a brown io­dine so­lu­tion and spread a blue ster­ile pa­per towel over her lower belly. I scrubbed my hands and just as I was to insert the lu­bri­cated catheter into the tiny pink shell of her ure­thra, the door slammed open and the hus­band barged through.

“Did I tell you that you could do it?” he snapped.

He hadn’t. But he didn’t tell me that I couldn’t ei­ther.

“This is my lit­tle girl,” he said, pulling up her panties and yank­ing down her skirt. He scooped her into his arms. “You vi­o­lated her. Who do you think you are?”

I thought I was a doc­tor. I was per­form­ing a med­i­cally nec­es­sary pro­ce­dure in­di­cated un­der the cir­cum­stances. But some­thing seemed to have gone wrong and she now was not go­ing to get it.

Nei­ther be­fore nor dur­ing my ro­ta­tion did any­body teach me how to talk and lis­ten to First Na­tions peo­ples. I was an im­mi­grant to Canada, fig­ur­ing out the vo­cab­u­lary of body lan­guage and in-jokes and the so­cial niceties in which Cana­di­ans en­gaged as part of their ver­bal ex­changes, my own at­tempts at ban­ter flail­ing and fail­ing.

It was 1994 and I had no idea about the abuse that In­dige­nous chil­dren had suf­fered at the hands of govern­ment doc­tors and nurses for gen­er­a­tions. As a med­i­cal stu­dent and res­i­dent in down­town Toronto hos­pi­tals, I had met home­less and in­di­gent First Na­tions pa­tients, but

knew noth­ing about the root causes. In med­i­cal school, an Asian pro­fes­sor had de­liv­ered a lec­ture on Chi­nese folk medicines, but the only teach­ing on Cana­dian First Na­tions was given in pass­ing: In­dige­nous peo­ple were tac­i­turn and had a high level of tol­er­ance for phys­i­cal pain, make sure to ac­count for that dur­ing phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions.

Later that day, my su­per­vi­sor warned me against in­ter­pret­ing si­lence as as­sent, to al­ways ob­tain ver­bal ac­knowl­edge­ment for any pro­ce­dures. “They don’t talk un­less you ask a di­rect ques­tion,” he said. As I was leav­ing, con­trite and chas­tised, he at­trib­uted the fa­ther’s be­hav­iour to “trou­bles with the band coun­cil,” and ad­vised me to take it easy.

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