Reflecting on my Time at the Indigenous Wellness Clinic

Hey all, my name is Ajay Gill!

For my stretch experience, I have been volunteering at the Indigenous Wellness Clinic (IWC), a multidisciplinary Indigenous-focused health center. The IWC provides the same primary care health services as any other clinic (check-ups/follow-ups, prescriptions, examinations, etc) but the staff use a multicultural approach that incorporates principles of Indigenous medicine to deliver healthcare to a wide array of Indigenous people.

Although Indigenous medicine practices are quite diverse and complex, we can get a basic understanding of how staff at IWC aim to deliver culturally sensitive care by comparing the philosophies of western medicine and indigenous medicine. Our western healthcare system focuses primarily on the physical health of patients; doctors treat the physical conditions ailing patients through prescriptions, surgical procedures, etc. Indigenous medicine, on the other hand, takes a more holistic approach to wellness by equally valuing mental, emotional and spiritual health in addition to physical health. These 4 aspects of health are often represented in a Medicine Wheel (as shown below).  If any of these elements becomes imbalanced, a person may become unwell; so, balance among the 4 aspects is essential for a healthy life. 

The Medicine Wheel

So far in my time at the IWC, I have taken part in the Diabetes Intake program. This program aims to address the high prevalence of diabetes among Indigenous people. Every month, a group of participants from across Canada spend 4 full days in the clinic together to learn about how the disease works, as well as diabetes management topics such as nutrition, medication, and life-style changes. However, in line with the teachings of the Medicine Wheel, this program addresses health holistically by facilitating daily prayers with a cultural helper and sessions dedicated to mental and emotional health.

Taking part in the Diabetes Intake Program was an enlightening experience for me that reiterated the importance of compassion and culturally sensitive care. 

Coming into the clinic, most of the patients didn’t have much knowledge about diabetes and came into the clinic with feelings of uncertainty, denial and fear towards the impact diabetes would have on their life. Rather than just overloading them with medical information, the staff’s focus was on meeting them where they were at, by addressing their concerns and giving them applicable info, they could incorporate into their lives (simple healthy eating tips/explanations, incorporation of exercise). This compassionate approach allowed for the patients to maximize what they learned.

The workshops focusing on mental, emotional and spiritual health were also unique in that they addressed the person holistically and humanized their condition. A cultural helper started each day off with a voluntary smudge (traditional ceremony for purifying and cleansing the soul of negative thoughts) followed by a sharing circle in which people could talk about how they are coping with diabetes. These sessions allowed patients to be comfortable and share their concerns/uncertainties. Although no medical information was directly being shared in these sessions, I observed a lot of healing taking place as patients realized they were not alone as other patients often had shared concerns/questions. In both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, having diabetes can carry a lot of stigma, so this sharing circle was invaluable in ensuring patients don’t become isolated and lose the will-power to fight the condition. 

Although I have only been at the clinic for 2 weeks, I have already learnt so much about compassion, Indigenous culture and the importance of culturally sensitive care. I am excited to see what the rest of my stretch experience entails!

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