Nazko First Nation's community health representative Lena Hjorth has been on the job in her community for 50 years. (Frank Peebles photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)

50 years of healing communities, patients, Quesnel

Lena Hjorth celebrated for being the heart of Nazko

For the past 50 years, the people of Nazko have been looked after by the caring hands and healing heart of Lena Hjorth.

Her friends, family, colleagues and community gathered on April 1 to celebrate her half-century milestone.

“I might April Fool them and tell them I’m retiring tonight,” Hjorth joked.

They wouldn’t have let her. She has been the Nazko Nation’s community health representative since she graduated from residential school and hurried as fast as she could back to people who loved her. Even though Nazko, in those days, had poor roads, only a payphone booth to call out, and a population steeped in alcoholism, it was where she wanted to be.

Although she insists her older siblings had a worse experience at residential school, the effects were still evident in her life. She lived next door to her own parents, at her grandparents’ home, and was able to be enrolled in Nazko’s day-school until about 11 years old, to avoid going to St. Joseph’s school in back of Williams Lake at earlier ages like her siblings. Her sister Violet Boyd said that she didn’t even know Lena was her sister, just thought she was the next door friend, until it was revealed at residential school.

“I’m glad you’re my sister. I love you,” Boyd said at the gathering.

Healthcare might have been Hjorth’s destiny from childhood. She made the front page of The Observer, she said, when she was rushed by helicopter from Nazko to the Quesnel hospital at the age of about 10, carried by the pilot to the waiting doctors and nurses.

Little did anyone know at the time, but one day it would be they who would rely on her to save lives and maintain wellness in a much different modern Nazko – and different in no small part because of Hjorth’s leadership.

“It’s impossible to believe that it’s been 50 years,” said Dr. Jerry McFeteridge, who attended the celebration. “I had the good fortune to work for you for 20 of those years out in Nazko and occasionally in Kluskus as well. You made going to work so easy, so enjoyable, always one of my most favourite parts of my month, all those years.”

Lyndsey Rhea is the Indigenous care coordinator for Northern Health and said Hjorth was instrumental in her work. “She took me under her wing…She is there not only for her community, but everyone in town. I’m lucky to call Lena a colleague, but also a friend.”

Santania Grant is a registered nurse for Nazko who said “Lena really showed me the ways of knowing and the ways of being, for the Nazko people, and I’m still learning to this day.”

Grant and Rhea described Hjorth as a dot connector, translator and relationship intermediary, in addition to the healthcare she is responsible for. “She is the face of Nazko…a friend who shows kindness, generosity, and taught me the value of being active in one’s community,” Grant said.

Hjorth, who will be 70 in June, attends doctors’ appointments, translates (some Southern Dakelh people still speak only their mother tongue), checks on patients, helps with patient discharges from facilities in town, coordinates and participates in drumming and ceremony, attends at eldercare facilities, and acts as the ambassador of health for the entire nation, wherever it’s needed.

So web-like is her network of duties and contacts that she has inevitably and necessarily been just as helpful to the broader Quesnel and Lhtako population (Nazko territory is adjacent to Lhtako), which is why her celebration was also attended gratefully by mayor Ron Paull, councillor Laurey-Anne Roodenburg (the first Indigenous relations liaison at the Quesnel council table), Regional District director Mary Sjostrom, and MLA Coralee Oakes.

Oakes marvelled at the size and diversity of the crowd, all there to celebrate her friend, someone the entire region appreciates, she said.

Sjostrom added, “It’s a testament to the difference you’ve made not just to Nazko but the whole community. I just can’t say thank you enough for continuing to do what you do. The people love you. We love you. We’re really pleased to honour you. You have a fantastic community and you’re a fantastic leader within it. You are a part of Quesnel.”

Rachel Chantyman, Nazko’s health director, said she knew right from the start that “Lena was the heart of Nazko” and was involved in the community “as everybody’s auntie,” which has not abated to this day.

It started back when Hjorth’s own auntie Jonah was the community health representative. When Hjorth escaped by graduation from residential school, Jonah spotted a dedicated teenaged ally.

“She sent me all over the reserve: ‘you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that.’ She helped look after people with their TB (tuberculosis), they had pills they had to take every day, so I delivered the pills for her to this person and that person.

“The nurse knew I wanted to help out. She put in a proposal for me to go to training, once a month, to Kamloops and Naramata and places like that, for a week here and there.”

She would learned how to dress wounds, do CPR, administer activated charcoal for poisonings or overdoses, doula training, Diabetes education, kids’ dental health, water testing training, FoodSafe and many other topics.

She saw her community – a place where even the most enigmatic hermit was known to her like family – in their best moments and worst circumstances.

One incident that sticks with her is “a boy shot his brother, when the parents weren’t home. It was accidental. They called me, I ran over, I knew the boy was dead right away. I never knew why they left the gun loaded.”

She easily finds her smile, though, and said there were so many times she went home from work full of joy at the good things that were happening for people, from new babies to healing from injuries to getting better from illness, and the general health of the population being better now than it was when she was a child. “There’s hardly anybody drinking; that’s what I like the most. More than 100 people got sober,” under her watch.

She is also a beading artist who used to do it with a single friend, but now has more than 20 active practitioners making earrings, belts, and many other culturally creative items.

Her own family also flourished. she has two boys, Shawn and Neil, from her first marriage, and daughter Leah from her second marriage. Leah is no less than the current chief of the Nazko First Nation, and served as master of ceremonies at the anniversary celebration.

Hjorth also has five step-children, and all tallied she has accumulated 18 grandkids and six great-grandchildren so far.

“We are all very proud of her,” said Leah, adding that the respect for her mother goes beyond Nazko into other First Nations and the community at large. “Our communities know how lucky we are to have her serving in our community.”

The 50th work anniversary celebration included a catered dinner, silent auction, enormous cake, introductory prayer and songs by the Eldzi Singers Drum Group. Then it turned into a full party with popular modern dance bands Kordaroy & Carrier Nation Reloaded on stage, featuring Kordaroy frontman Chad Stump, Leah’s husband, who said this was probably the band’s biggest performance of the year, in his mind.

After all, he said, the band just performed at the 50th anniversary for the Quesnel Native Friendship Centre, and Hjorth was at least equal to that in her time of service and community influence – a human institution and still holding the community in her healing hands.

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Those who spoke at the celebration included:

Nazko chief Leah Stump – daughter

Chad Stump – son-in-law

Santania Grant – Nazko RN

Lyndsey Rhea – Indigenous Care Coordinator, Northern Health

Violet Boyd – Sister

Lavina Boyd – Niece

Racheal Chantyman – Nazko health director

Holly Nelson – former Nazko RN

Dr. McFetridge – Physician who worked in Nazko

Kristine Jensen – former Nazko RN

Dan Kishkan – former Nazko Teacher

Peter Paul – Lena’s basketball coach

Maureen Watson – Former Nazko community member

Coralee Oakes – MLA

Mary Sjostrom – CRD

Charlene Paul – Nazko community member

Jon Wyminga – Cariboo Presbyterian Church

Roy Stump – ?Esdilagh First Nation

Dennis Patrick – Brother-in-law

Stan Boyd – brother

Doreen Patrick – sister

Andrea Rickey – Nazko RN

Linda Kishkan – former Nazko teacher

Lori Storey – former Nazko community member

Wendy Mahoney – former Nazko community member

Leigh Cassidy – Ortho Bionomy facilitator

Darlene Readshaw – Nazko community member