Feb. 4, 2022

Since working with Indigenous Elders as a student, nursing alumna found great rewards in experience with Siksika Nation

Sollena Lai supported an Indigenous vaccine clinic during her final practicum; now she works with OKAKI and its partners, the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary and Siksika Health Services
Sollena Lai - Siksika COVID-19 Vaccine Team
Sollena Lai, right, with the Siksika COVID-19 Vaccine Team.

Answering a recruitment call for nursing students has turned into a full-time role for a recent UCalgary grad, one that promises to set her up for endless possibilities as a career RN. 

During her final practicum last spring, Sollena Lai, BN’21, also supported a COVID-19 Urban Indigenous Immunization Clinic initiative run by OKAKI, a public health services and informatics social enterprise (the word Okaki is Blackfoot for wisdom of mind, body and spirit).

Initially Lai, along with several other UCalgary Nursing students, offered COVID-19 vaccinations to Indigenous elders at the Circle of Wisdom Elders and Senior Centre. When COVID-19 vaccines for all Albertans opened, Lai and her colleagues were asked to permanently join OKAKI and their partners, which include the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary (AFCC) and Siksika Health Services. 

Lai has been grateful for the chance to practise and learn within culturally diverse populations. “I have worked directly with the Siksika Nation immunization services, both in clinic and around the community utilizing the Aisokinakio’p Immunization Special Forces vehicle,” she says. 

“Gradually, we have also had the chance to target other vulnerable and transient populations working with the AFCC team in downtown Calgary and the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, providing coverage for immigrants and refugees new to Alberta. I have also, most recently, taken part in contact tracing with Siksika Health Services' Communicable Disease Control team.”

In their journeys outside the city, Lai and her co-worker, Carrington Catabay, BN’21 were troubled by the lack of access to essential health-care services, especially up north. As well, a significant challenge the pair recognized is the community hesitancy regarding any type of health-care service. 

“In many cases, previous negative experiences with health care deterred individuals from seeking out much-needed services,” says Lai. “Additionally, due to the longstanding history of mistreatment and mistrust, many Indigenous individuals, specifically Elders in the community that we have had the privilege of talking to, have a strained relationship with the health-care system.” 

Combined with cultural safety issues is the misinformation around the COVID-19 virus, adds Lai, but she sees it as a great learning opportunity.

While the barriers are definitely frustrating at times, they have also become sources of great educational value for me as a nurse. I have learned different ways to effectively communicate with the many populations that I am working with, while also empathizing and acknowledging their past trauma. I always try to remember that I have not had the same experiences that others had, and I do genuinely try to educate and dispel misinformation without dismissing their feelings and opinions.

Michelle Scott, director of Indigenous initiatives at St. Mary’s University and a UCalgary Werklund School of Education doctoral student, was immunized by Lai in March 2021 for her first dose and again in May for her second. She agrees that it is essential, when working with any culturally diverse population, to be culturally competent and mindful of the practices of that community.

“What really stood out for me was the relational approach that Sol had in her work with OKAKI,” Scott says. “My experience in March being immunized with Sol in an Indigenous clinic was so life-giving and affirming that it led to me having a conversation with one of our beloved Elders in community who was concerned about the large clinical approach to immunizations. After me sharing my relational and culturally safe experience with Sol and the team, the Elder signed up with her daughter at the same clinic.”

Lai admits that finishing her nursing program during a pandemic was a challenge. “My biggest worry was the possibility of being exposed during a shift, and then compromising the safety of my family and others around me. It was also difficult to see families unable to visit each other; you see the emotional and mental toll it can take on patients.

"However, my skills were really strengthened, especially in regard to infection prevention and control, and now I feel like I have the ability to adapt to anything. I had many powerful experiences where I felt I helped make an individual’s day a little better. Whether it was helping someone with their pain, or simply keeping someone company, I love being a presence that others can count on.”

Going forward, Lai urges students interested in working rurally and with Indigenous communities to take time to get involved and learn about the possibilities that exist. 

“Immerse yourself with genuine curiosity and interest. Learn about the culture and history of an area and/or its people. Have an open mind to learn and appreciate their beliefs. Do not be afraid to ask questions and be willing to learn. 

"My work has made me take a step back and recognize the privileges I have and sometimes take for granted, but also the overall connectedness. The togetherness and collective strong family values of these communities is something we share and is truly heartwarming.” 

Lai concludes with a shout-out to all her classmates from 2021. “Because we didn’t have a proper graduation, I just want to say congratulations: you all are so hardworking — remember when you graduated during a pandemic? And remember: please take the time to take care of yourselves!”