By Breanne Massey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The definition of a home may vary from person-to-person and from community-to-community, stretching even further from country-to-country.

For some of the members of Akisqnuk First Nation (AFN), the land where the community now lives in the Columbia Valley is the definition of home.

“It was difficult at first to convince people to stay at home because the entire reserve is what they call home,” said Patsy Nicholas, AFN health care unit program manager.

But the transparency of the Columbia Valley Rockies organization who publicly spoke about the experience of becoming infected with COVID-19 during the pandemic last spring resonated deeply with the Ktunaxa members, encouraging many band members to take safety precautions and provincial health guidelines more seriously.

“It became real,” said Patsy. “It began to resonate with the community that COVID-19 had reached our valley, and it helped change the behaviours of some people who had been struggling to stay at home alone during the pandemic.”

With an inclusive approach for health and wellness, the AFN health unit has remained open to serve the community with a wide variety of programs and services.

“All four of the (Ktunaxa) bands (health care units in Canada) were given the option to stay open or to close when the pandemic began, and I think we were the only one that chose to stay open,” explained Patsy. “We didn’t think it made sense to close the doors on the community during a time of need.”

Licensed Practitioner Nurse (LPN) Shelley Solloway added, “health is not just Monday to Friday. All of our community members have access to —” “Shelley’s number,” interrupted Patsy with a chuckle and a smile in Solloway’s direction. “That’s true,” Solloway said with a disarmed grin. “We assumed everyone was positive (for COVID-19) and acted accordingly. Akisqnuk was the only health care centre that stayed open the whole time.”

Nursing services and programs are geared toward self-identified, on-reserve community members with funding through the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and the Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC). The health unit offers immunizations, home care, individual wellness planning, women’s health and family care.

“Our community relies on our services,” concluded Elizabeth Nicholas, Akisqnuk First Nation health and wellness coordinator. “A lot of our members don’t have phones, (the) internet and some of them don’t drive, so I think it would’ve been a lot worse for everyone if we would’ve closed.”

Safety measures for COVID-19

Health care staff at the Akisqnuk First Nation are urging the community to stay safe and continually practice physical distancing, regular hand-washing-and-sanitizing; while wearing face masks.

On Friday, Dec. 4, the AFN health care unit reported to their knowledge there were currently no positive COVID-19 cases being reported on the reserve.

“We did everything to help the community stay home,” explained Elizabeth, adding their team picked-up medications and groceries, then delivered them to community members in-need.

Resident home care aide Danny Burgoyne added, “I was doing home checks to ask how (members) are doing, doing physical checks then I would come back and (consult) with Shelley about my observations.”

The duration of visits in the home care program have decreased from 30-minutes to 15-minutes to monitor blood pressure and liaise with the doctors in light of the novel coronavirus.

“I’m learning what to say and what not to say,” said Burgoyne about the visits. “Some of them are isolated and want me to stay. You can tell they want to keep me there because they keep talking and trying to keep me there.”

But AFN health care program manager Patsy added there have been some positives from the experience of a global pandemic. Some of the elders had been wanting to skill-up in emerging technologies and had the opportunity to do so while attending virtual wellness check-ins geared toward isolated elders through KNC’s Traditional Knowledge and Language Sector (TKL).

“I think their technology skills have improved a lot, so it was good for them to be with the four (Ktunaxa) communities and TKL,” explained Patsy. “They were using Webex not Zoom.”

Their entire team thanked Dr. Gareth Mannheimer for providing regular updates on the COVID-19 pandemic in the Columbia Valley Pioneer and is looking forward to the return of Dr. Paige’s visits to the community when it’s safe to do so.

Home Care Program

After serving the AFN’s health care unit as a resident care aide for 15 years, Burgoyne had to develop situationally relevant care tools and approaches to provide home care to band members, while striving to practice social and physical distancing practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

His experience began to shift which increased his awareness about treating community members in different styles of health and wellness.

“We’ve had training in different mental health styles, so with this pandemic, each one of us has been using those tools every day because of the stuff we’re coming across,” said Burgoyne, noting many elders feel isolated at home.

The band is no longer offering transportation to the East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook through the use of their personal vehicles. Now, band members only receive transportation through the band’s van for designated trips. Instead of going into appointments with elders, Burgoyne now waits outside for each passenger.

Mental Health and Addictions

Whether it be depression, anxiety, insomnia or feeling overwhelmed by the stressors of daily life — the team at the AFN health care unit are available to support the community in many ways.

“The way I like to see things done here is to deal with it like a family,” explained Patsy.

“I like to deal with the family as a group. But it’s more difficult when non-band members live on the reserve and the funding we have is geared toward on-reserve members-only. I think it needs to be more inclusive (so funding is distributed appropriately).”

Her health care team often responds to the needs of the community when it comes to mental health and addictions, so they may advocate for services on behalf of a band member and their families.

The staff members may opt to request expedited services when required and often serve as advocates for those in-need to help provide services to the community.

“I think for the whole valley, there’s been an increase in mental health issues and addictions,” said Solloway. “We’re already living in a rural community, so you can’t just hop on a bus and go to a mall or a movie theatre, but now on top of that, we can’t even go to visit our neighbours. It’s been very hard for a lot of people.”

Caring for Youths

Elizabeth, the wellness care coordinator at the AFN health care unit, has been serving the community as a non-medical liaison for youths since April.

While the band members at AFN are largely adults, Elizabeth works in close-collaboration with her supervisor Soloway to advocate for health and wellness programs within the community for younger members of the band.

“They keep coming back, so I take that as a good sign,” said Elizabeth with a smile, adding the youth from the community are often passive and quiet.

The duo’s focus is largely rooted in social development initiatives. Their efforts are continous and ongoing.