It started in a village in the Congo. Fresh out of medical school, a 24-year-old Gary Groot had left his hometown of Saskatoon to work in Kalonda, a village in Bandundu in the D.R.C. (formerly known as Zaire.) He was ambitious, idealistic and passionate about improving health in a country where by some estimates, 70 per cent of people have little or no access to health care.
Over the course of the two years Gary practiced there, he fell in love with the lush and mesmerizing Central African landscape. He became friends with a number of Zairian people. One in particular was named Tshimoa. He was gentle and deeply thoughtful. He and Gary developed a close friendship and would spend countless hours talking about their lives, joking and exchanging views on spirituality.
Two weeks before he was set to return to Canada, Tshimoa sat Gary down and told him something that would change his life forever.
“It doesn’t matter how hard you try to be one of us, how simple you choose to live, how well you speak my language, how much time you live amongst us. You will never be one of us.”
He went on to explain that if Gary ever needed a heart transplant, he could have it done in Canada whereas if he ever needed one, he would die.
“The words hurt me deeply at the time,” explains Gary.
“I had sincerely wanted to be a person who lived life with integrity and it felt like he was pointing out my inability to right the big wrongs of the world.”
“I returned to Canada feeling sad and disillusioned,” he admits. “I felt a deep guilt for my privilege that I did not earn.”
That exchange was something Gary would never forget. Years later, when he started practicing surgical oncology, the topic of health inequities would resurface, only this time with Indigenous patients. In their conversations, Gary would listen as Indigenous Cancer patients described the struggles and barriers they encountered moving through the province’s cancer care system.
“There is nothing more powerful than sitting with another person and hearing their story,” he says.
“By that I mean, taking the time and effort to really listen with the intent to hear.”
What Gary heard were patients speaking about how the fear, anxiety, sadness and anger that comes with an initial cancer diagnosis was compounded by systemic racism. Colonization, the residential school experience and abuse at the hands of medical professionals, were all painful historical legacies that were contributing to the great distrust between Indigenous patients and health care workers. This was having a very real impact on the health and well-being of Indigenous patients.
It was something Gary could not ignore. It was the first step in his own journey towards reconciliation.
“Reconciliation for me means moving outside of my comfort zone to first understand, and then do what I am able to correct historic injustices that have occurred between the settler community and Indigenous Peoples,” Gary explains.
Since embarking on his Indigenous Health stream, Gary has turned to Indigenous knowledge keepers, patients and patient families for guidance on developing culturally responsive supports. It was an Indigenous patient that first suggested the idea to him of a patient navigator to accompany patients as they moved through their cancer care journey.
A number of cities across the country have launched Indigenous Patient Navigation programs to much success. Patient navigators typically provide a range of emotional, language and cultural supports to patients each time they encounter the health care system, making the experience less frustrating and difficult.
Guided by a commitment to honor Indigenous peoples’ lived experiences, and their values as it relates to health and well-being, Gary began to work alongside and collaborate closely with various Indigenous system partners including the First Nations Métis Health Services, the Prince Albert Grand Council and Métis Nation Saskatchewan. The goal: to create culturally responsive supports that take into account the unique worldviews, and wholistic healing approaches of Indigenous peoples.
Funding from a recently awarded SHRF Establishment Grant will be used to launch an Indigenous Patient Navigator Program for Cancer patients. The Indigenous Patient Navigator will support roughly 30 newly diagnosed Indigenous patients from first diagnosis, through to the end of their initial treatment, and then ultimate transition back to their home community.
For Gary, it doesn’t stop there. He wants to encourage health care providers to play their own part to advance reconciliation.
“Take a few moments to remember why you began on this journey into the medical profession,” he urges.
“I think that it will be difficult to remain indifferent.”
Echoing the words of his friend Tshimoa, Gary recognizes the inherent privilege that comes with being a settler as well as a medical practitioner. For Gary, moving towards reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples means sharing his clinical expertise of the disease, drawing on his many years working in health system improvement, and working with Indigenous partners to optimize care for Indigenous cancer patients.
“Each of us will engage with reconciliation differently and to a different extent but it is difficult to remain indifferent if you take a few minutes now and again to remember to see the person in your care first and foremost.”
“If you take the time to do that there is no option but to respond by taking action, whatever that action might be."