2020 is the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. In celebration and recognition, we will feature stories all year long of nurses and midwives from across the province and the great work they do for BC First Nations people and communities.
Calling Mavis Sebastian at her home on Gitanmaax Reserve in Hazelton, you might expect to hear her talk about her more than 36 years of working as a nurse in her community. But people often tell her that her real skill is in listening to others.
“People connect to me right away," said Mavis, who is now an Elder and family matriarch. “Native and non-Native, you've got to have that connection with people."
It's a skill that Mavis—who is a member of the Gisgaast Clan from the House of Niis Noothl and holds the traditional name of Xsimgildipx'negh (Lady Hummingbird)—has harnessed to provide community health care over the past four decades.
“I think as a nurse you have to listen, to make sure you know where the family is coming from, how they're all related and what they've been through," she explains. “For example, with residential schools, you need to know where they come from so you can actually help them."
When she began working as a nurse at Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace in 1984, Mavis says there were few to no First Nations people working in health care. As a child, she was inspired by her mother, Rose, who worked in the Wrinch Memorial Hospital from the age of 14 as a sterilization technician. Her Auntie, Cora Gray, also worked in the hospital as a head cook.
But perhaps her defining experience occurred during a horrific car accident in 1972 at the age of just 19. Her brother Rob was tragically killed, and she spent many months in hospital in traction, recovering from a broken neck. As Mavis experienced being on the receiving end of compassionate care from health professionals, she began to envision a life of paying it forward.
Mavis Graduating in 1984
Mavis worked as a ward clerk from 1978 to 1982 at Wrinch Memorial in Hazelton, before enrolling and graduating as a registered nurse from the College of New Caledonia in Prince George in 1984. She spent the next 12 years working as a nurse in hospitals, before finding her calling as a community health nurse in the communities of Gitwangak and Gitanyow.
“And then I fell in love with community health nursing after that," said Mavis, looking back at a 24-year career in which she was able to serve her people. “I can understand their language so they really appreciated that. And because I'm from Hazelton and I worked in that area, they just accepted me straight away."
Mavis' father, Philip, was disenfranchised from his “status" when he enlisted to serve his country during the Second World War, so she and her siblings grew up off-reserve. But she says she can appreciate the experience of living in “both worlds," and that it has helped her as a community health nurse working with people both on- and off-reserve.
Throughout the years, Mavis has been involved in numerous health studies involving Gitxsan Nation, advocating strongly for research that will benefit the health outcomes of First Nations people. One of the highlights of her career involved the Gitxsan Way of Knowing about Dementia, a project to support building awareness and understanding of how dementia affects families.
Just as her parents supported her journey, Mavis has always played a role in encouraging people to consider a career in health care. Now, she's excited about the idea that her niece, Kaitlyn Morrison, who is currently a personal care aide, is considering going into nursing herself.
Mavis is currently on a personal health journey. As a cancer survivor, she says it's been another learning opportunity that has helped open her eyes on how hard cancer was for her own patients.
“We have to make sure that we look after our own health. Sometimes we get so busy we don't look after ourselves. Practise what you preach, I guess," she said, laughing again.
Mavis Sebastian received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2008. She is expected to retire soon, but still receives calls on her off hours from all the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en communities, providing a continuing source of knowledge, experience and comfort during these trying times.