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Métis Surgeon spearheads cultural safety initiatives for Indigenous children in healthcare

Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2021

She vividly remembers being terrified as she walked into her first surgery at HSC Winnipeg Children’s Hospital. Not because she did not know what to do; she had done this particular kidney surgery many times before during her fellowship and felt confident with it. It was the overwhelming intensity of both the joy and nervousness that she was finally doing what she had dreamed of since she was 12 years old. Dr. Melanie Morris had just become the first Indigenous pediatric surgeon in Canada.

“My mom was a teacher and dad a teacher, scientist and financial planner. They told us there are no shortcuts, but as long as you work hard – you can do anything and be anything,” says Dr. Morris. My mother always taught me to stand proud as a woman who often found herself in a man’s world.”

It is that sense of limitless possibility that allowed her to push through a 4-year bachelor’s degree program, then 4-year medical school program, followed by a five-year general surgery residency, and finally a two-year pediatric surgery fellowship, followed by a 1-year fellowship in pediatric urology.

In general residency she thought she would go into an ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialty but after a rotation in pediatric surgery she realized her passion was working with children in general surgery.

“The kids, they really take you out of your ego and into a magical world of an extraordinary little human. The way they see and what they showed me… their resiliency. It is a privilege to work with them. And if a child is suffering, I can help… there is no other job that can give me that same opportunity,” says Dr. Morris.

This passion to help every child she operates on continues to drive her in her role today and she appreciates the connection she makes with each family. “Children are the most precious thing to their parents, so I am honored and humbled that parents put trust in me.”

Along the way in medical school, Morris developed another unanticipated passion - to be an advocate for Indigenous cultural awareness in healthcare.

“When I was a kid, I guess I was sheltered from racism. I was always visiting family in the Interlake Region of Manitoba and participating in traditional Metis things, like cooking tourtiere and bannock with my grandmother. I didn’t know other kids weren’t doing these same things.”

Dr. Morris says it was not until she was an adult that a few things happened, and she recognized the challenges of lack of cultural awareness and racism…and that it was also directed at her. The first was when she took Native Studies during her bachelor’s degree and heard that Metis Peoples were natives.

“I didn’t know I was ‘native’.”

The second was in Med school when she overheard a group of students make denigratory remarks about Indigenous Peoples.

“It was confusing…I heard it and then I realized that these negative remarks were also about me – my people. I felt like I lost a bit of who I was,” says Dr. Morris, “and at the same time I felt guilty that other people had experienced it at younger ages and had much worse things happen to them.”

She struggled with imposter syndrome after this but through it realized something that has become her passion ever since.

“If we want meaningful cultural shift for Indigenous child health care, we need to stand up as Indigenous women and lead.”

So, lead she does.

Dr. Morris holds various teaching positions within the University of Manitoba including being a faculty in the curriculum for indigenous teaching for medical students.

She has developed outreach clinics in Nunavut and is working on developing capacity in Northern Manitoba so that children can receive care closer to their cultural communities and families.

She also founded the Winnipeg Global Surgery Office and currently serves as the medical director. She has supported teaching and training in the area of Pediatric Surgery in Kenya and Uganda and remains an active board member of The College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa. Through her international work she was appointed as a board member of the Canadian Network of International Surgery and an instructor for the University of British Columbia College of Medicine’s Masters in Global Surgery program. She runs workshops on Indigenous health in global surgery.

And as part of HSC Winnipeg’s reconciliation and commitment to serving the 60 per cent of kids who come to hospital from Indigenous communities in culturally safe and appropriate ways, she has been appointed the first lead for Indigenous Health for HSC Children’s Hospital.

Her list of accomplishments and leadership goes on and no doubt will continue to go on because of her passion and ideas for the future of healthcare.

She has been influenced by many women, indigenous and non-indigenous, along the way – too many to name them all. But she recalls a few wise words that continue to keep her going.

“Dr. Jackie Kennedy, a surgeon at University of Alberta, said ‘be the best surgeon you can be’ and it struck me that yes, I should always be at my maximum ability. So, to this day I ask myself after every surgery – was I great? How can I be better?”

Friends Leslie Spillet and Helen Robinson-Settee taught her that systems changes do not happen without patience and persistence. And Elders, Margaret Lavallee, Sherry Copenace and Levinia Brown, remind her that how she feels about being an Indigenous person will vary from how other indigenous people feel about their heritage. The variety from person to person is important to be recognized also.

This philosophy is what Dr. Morris has taken into her latest project to create an Indigenous Community Healing Space within Manitoba’s HSC Winnipeg Children’s Hospital. Dr. Morris has ensured members from all indigenous communities across Manitoba have been involved so many perspectives are part of the project. She also plans to engage children, families and Elders the design components and artwork.

With funding from community donors through the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Foundation, Dr. Morris hopes to influence and lead more projects in the hospital and out to communities that allow kids from urban and rural Indigenous communities to see themselves in the places where they receive care and feel safe and understood there.

“This is not optional. This is what I am supposed to do. Even on a hard day, when I am tired or feel destroyed, to know that I can help kids is what makes me feel like I can get up and go on.”

To support the Indigenous Community Healing Space, donate at goodbear.ca/IndigenousHealth

This article was submitted by Kathryn McBurney, Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba.

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