Nurses celebrate an Indigenous near-nurse

Former Nazko RN Holly Nelson speaks fondly of the community's 50-year healthcare liaison Lena Hjorth. (Frank Peebles photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)
Lena Hjorth drums with her granddaughter during the celebration of Hjorth's 50 years as Nazko First Nation's community health representative. (Frank Peebles photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)
Nothing celebrates a special occasion like cake, like this one for Lena Hjorth's 50 years as Nazko First Nation's community health representative. (Frank Peebles photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)

An Indigenous leader has achieved honourary nurse status over 50 years working the medical field.

Lena Hjorth is the community health representative in her Nazko community. It has taken her to almost every corner of the broader Cariboo-Chilcotin region and into almost every health and wellness situation from birth to death. A lot of people with letters behind their name like MD and MLA celebrated her work, when her professional golden anniversary was celebrated, but the most plentiful profession to applaud Lena was RN. Although Hjorth was not a nurse by trade, she was appreciated with collegial respect by those who were.

“I was lost in the beginning,” said Santania Grant, Nazko’s current RN (registered nurse). “Luckily Lena was available for every step of my journey working in Nazko. She really painted a picture of what it was like to live there, not only now, but in years past, so I would have a better understanding of people and better serve them with their healthcare needs. 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…I don’t think anyone who comes to Nazko to provide care could do their work very well without Lena’s assistance. There is no amount of education that can replace the knowledge that Lena possesses.”

Holly Nelson and Kristine Jensen are both former Nazko RNs, and they agreed that Hjorth was essential to their careers while working in that community.

“You were instrumental in developing teeth brushing sessions. All the kids would come into the nursing station and brush their teeth and go home with toothbrushes. Sometimes we even had toothpaste to give them. This was the inspiration for Nazko to get a dental hygenist,” said Nelson, as one example of Hjorth’s overall impact on healthcare in the community. “I’m sure all the people in the Nazko Valley have sought her help and support, because she was known to be so dedicated and trustworthy.”

Jensen grew up in Nazko considering Hjorth an auntie-figure, which only deepened when she came back to be the RN in her home community. She said, “Lena was a great support to me, and I really enjoyed travelling around together. She really is the heart of the community. I’m happy to call you a friend and a colleague.”

Colleague. More than a helper. Colleague.

Racheal 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.

“Whenever there is any type of need in the community, Lena is always there,” Chantyman said. “Because she has been in that role for so long, people call her nurse Lena. They know her as the nurse.”

Social worker Lyndsey Rhea is also not a nurse, but is well steeped in the healthcare professions in her role as Indigenous care coordinator at G.R. Baker Memorial Hospital. She sees in Hjorth a beacon of professionalism and leadership in grassroots healthcare.

“From the day I first met Lena she took me under her wing and helped me get to know the community,” Rhea said. “She showed me such kindness and helped me develop the important relationships that I needed for the work that I do, and to learn more about the Nazko community. I always new that if I had a question, that I could call Lena and she would know the answer. Over the years we have done all kinds of things together,” from making bannock to beading, and much more. “Lena has been an important colleague for me. She attends doctors’ appointments with patients, translates for them, often checks in with patients at the hospital and when they are discharged, she has come to Dunrovin, has drummed at ceremonies at the hospital, and at the COVID clinics. Lena is always there, not just for her community but for everyone in town. I’m lucky to call Lena not only a colleague but also a friend.”

There’s that word again: colleague.

During National Nursing Week it is important to celebrate nurses, including the ways that they celebrate others who enable their critical work to be done. Few are as effective and empowering as Lena Hjorth.

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