Future health providers discovered a unique gem tucked away in northern Alberta: a group of Francophone communities passionate about enhancing rural medicine.
From October 26 to 28, the communities of McLennan, Donnelly, Girouxville, and Falher within the Municipal District of Smoky River hosted a bilingual RhPAP Health-care Skills Weekend event, sponsored by the Rural Health Professions Action Plan (RhPAP), University of Alberta Faculté St. Jean, the Smoky River Regional Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee (SRRPR&R), and Alberta Health Services.
More than 20 medical and nursing students from Calgary, Edmonton, and Grande Prairie participated in the event, practicing or learning new skills such as casting, suturing, placement of IVs, and emergency response at Sacred Heart Health Care Centre in McLennan, known locally as the McLennan Hospital.
Barbara Mader, site manager for the McLennan Hospital, gave the students a tour of the facilities, and pointed out some of the amenities including surgical suites for their endoscopy program, decontamination rooms for on-site equipment sterilization, an emergency room, long-term care suites, and 20 acute care beds. Dental students from the University of Alberta also provide dentistry services for the community members, as the University leases space for practicum students.
“We’re a pretty busy little hospital, quieter on the weekends, which is great,” Mader said. “Being a small town hospital, we have to deal with everything that comes through our doors.”
Patients include those with injuries from recreational activities such skiing or ski-doo accidents, as well as others requiring palliative care, managing chronic disease, or delivering a baby.
Once the tour was complete, students spent their Saturday in a rotation of classes with doctors, nurses, and emergency responders from the area as well as STARS flight nurse Chris LaRose who came with the mobile education bus.
“I think coming here, and being able to see this environment, it really helped me realize what rural life was – what rural nursing was.” — Nicholas Hitti
Myrna Lanctot, coordinator for the Smoky River Regional Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee, says they jumped at the opportunity to showcase the Smoky River area, and to highlight how health care professionals can thrive both personally and professionally in a rural environment.
“Rural life can be a great work-life balance, but it can also be very challenging, so (health practitioners) can put their skills to the biggest test likely in the rural areas,” Lanctot said.
“It’s a challenge recruiting to the north, let alone trying to recruit to speciality like a bilingual health care professional,” Mader explained, adding there is a Francophone coordinator in McLennan who helps with the communication aspect.
Laura Sevick, a medical student at the University of Calgary, said she came to the skills event to experience a part of Alberta she had never been to, saying the event “really changed (her) outlook”.
“I really appreciated speaking with one of the doctors, and them explaining the huge scope of their practice,” Sevick said.
Nicholas Hitti, a bilingual nursing student at the University of Alberta Faculté St. Jean, said he particularly enjoyed putting on and taking off a cast.
“It was a really empathetic experience to feel what fear a patient might have,” he said.
Hitti said that while he had definitely thought about the possibility of working rurally it was not something he fully understood.
“I think coming here, and being able to see this environment, it really helped me realize what rural life was – what rural nursing was,” he said.
When they were not in class, the students experienced some of what the communities had to offer, including a family dance in McLennan hosted by the Smoky River FCSS on the night of their arrival on October 26.
After their day of training, they headed to Donnelly to participate in a scavenger hunt organized by the ACFA (Associations Canadienne Française de l’Alberta) and sponsored by Alberta Capital Finance Authority.
On Saturday evening, a community turkey dinner was held in Falher, provided by the SRRPR&R and the Economic Council of Alberta, followed by a paint night, sponsored by the Smoky River Agricultural Society, featuring motivational speaker and artist Denise Hoag from Sherwood Park.
At each of these events, as well as those that followed the next day, the group of students – all of whom were bilingual – enjoyed hearing presentations in both French and English. The blend of languages highlighted the rich history of the area, and presented a unique opportunity to those who were able to speak both languages.
“Keep an open mind about rural. It’s a very rewarding place to work.” — Linda Desaulniers, clinical nurse educator for the AHS North Zone.
“It was really great this weekend that we got to practice skills and do the medical part, but it was also great that we got to see how the community was able to pull all their resources and really showcase it in both French and English,” said Philippe Pépin, a participating medical student from the University of Calgary
Sunday, October 28 saw the students board the bus to tour local agricultural operations, including the Black Sheep Farm and Berube Family Farms, learning about animal care and management, greenhouse production, local crops, and grain drying. Students were encouraged to ask questions and learn more about what makes the communities tick.
As the students headed home, the instructors and organizers hoped they would take away new skills but also a renewed possibility for adventures beyond the city.
“Keep an open mind about rural,” suggested Linda Desaulniers, clinical nurse educator for the AHS North Zone. “It’s a very rewarding place to work.”
- Video & Article by Alicia Fox