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Medical students get unique experience

SUDBURY, Ontario – This year, the first graduating class of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine completed the program with some unique experiences in aboriginal communities across the northern part of the province.

The students spent four weeks of their first year of medical school in one of the region’s nearly 100 Ojibwe, Cree, OjiCree, Métis and other First Nations’ communities, absorbing cultural information and understanding medical needs.

The four-week experience is not the only interaction between fledging doctors and the communities. A range of programs guarantee that the aboriginal and Métis voices are heard in the halls of Canada’s first new medical school in 30 years.

The six aboriginal students who graduated from Northern Ontario School of Medicine earlier this year received beaded stethoscopes.

The school’s obligation to the rural communities comes from the original push for a medical school. For years, the government said no to the request for a medical school in Thunder Bay and Sudbury. Through community political pressure and fundraising the answer transformed into a “yes.”

NOSM’s first official classes were in 2005. The medical school has campuses at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and the Laurentian University in Sudbury, but remains a separate, nonprofit corporation with its own board and bylaws.

It also has an acknowledged debt to the aboriginal communities for continued support.

“The relationship with the (aboriginal) peoples has been a critical component for the school. The political organizations representing the First Nations were amongst those who were in the lead (pushing for a northern medical school),” says NOSM Dean Dr. Roger Strasser.

Ian Peltier, Aboriginal Affairs Unit acting director, said, “That strong aboriginal move was kind of the icing on the cake. I really do believe it was largely, in part, that final push that made it a reality.”

Besides the Aboriginal Affairs Unit, the school created an Aboriginal Reference Group of community members to advise on issues of importance to the First Nations and Métis peoples or propose projects with the communities.

Peltier said the program to bring first-year students to the reserves and northern communities helps in several ways: It dispels the myths about aboriginal and Métis cultures with which many of the non-aboriginal students may have grown up; it gives the communities a chance to be involved in encouraging and training medical students who may one day return as physicians; and it’s a chance to recruit local youth into medical careers.

“One of the major tasks that we’ve identified is tapping the aboriginal applicant pool. There’s no one better to recruit a medical school student than a medical student.”

For example, the school organizes summer science camps for aboriginal, Métis, Francophone and at-risk youth to encourage medical careers – one involved letting the youngsters become the “CSI” forensic detectives at a mock crime scene – and does recruiting in schools.

During the past four years, five to 11 percent of new students have been from First Nations and Métis communities. About 90 percent of all students are from northern Ontario, making them more likely to remain in the communities after graduation – the point of a regional medical school.

For smaller northern communities, hosting a first-year medical student for four weeks can be a challenge; Program Coordinator Frances Mandamin helps smooth those experiences for students and faculty members. She also brings community needs to the school’s faculty.

Ian Peltier, acting director of Northern Ontario School of Medicine’s Aboriginal Affairs Unit.

“Whatever the community sees as a need. … assisting with a community health plan or whatever expertise that we could match them with the community.”

Not all the students are strangers to the communities or cultures. One aboriginal student was assigned to her home community. “They were very proud to have her back home as a medical student,” Peltier said. “It was a very powerful experience.

“We need them to be part of the community. They need to be culturally sensitive and part of the day-to-day community life. When you look at a traditional medical school, they don’t train doctors to become part of the community.”

The word “traditional” for this medical school “takes on a different connotation” than most medical schools, said Sam Senecal, NOSM’s regional aboriginal community coordinator. Traditional here often refers to aboriginal traditions.

The school has developed an “Elders Handbook” explaining the role of community elders and outlining how the school’s faculty, staff and students can tap the elders as advisors or counselors. Students and faculty are encouraged to ask for spiritual advice as well as traditional healing philosophies and practices.

Elders who agree to be part of the school’s support spend about one week per month at either campus to counsel students.

The next step for NOSM’s Aboriginal Affairs Unit, said Peltier, is to get faculty members for longer stays in aboriginal communities. “They get to work with a community, they get to learn from the community and the community gets to learn from them. The fruits of our labor are becoming apparent.”