A Second Bowl of Soup

MC40_northernlights“Go back down south where you belong you kablunak itik!”

“Kablunak itik! Kablunak itik! Laying on the stretcher she kicked her legs against the guard rails and screamed at the top of her lungs. I didn’t know much Inuktitut but I knew kablunak itik: white asshole.

I bristled but did my best to maintain my composure.  As I dropped the guard rail, the loud clang interrupted her insult. “Should you require further care you are more than welcome to make an appointment to come back and see us at the clinic.”  It was not the first time Lucy had caused a scene at the health centre in this small northern community but this was by far the most dramatic.

The next morning the Community Health Worker arrived in my office. Helen’s official role was health promotion and education, but she worked well beyond her job duties.  “I went to Lucy’s house yesterday” she admitted, seeming almost worried that she went without my permission.  “I told her that you were from Yellowknife.”  She paused briefly. “She feels really bad.  She didn’t realize you were from the North.”

I shrugged. Nurses are the windshield on the healthcare highway and regularly face the debris of patient frustrations. I had come away worse in other situations.  Helen studied my face intently.  “She wants you to come to her house.”  This made me instantly uneasy but in my short time at the health centre I had come to trust Helen and decided I should give in to her soft persistence.

When we arrived I followed Helen into the house; Lucy was sitting at her kitchen table.  “Ublukut” they said to each other.  I knew that word too.  Good afternoon.   I sat across the table from Lucy who was dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “I really want to apologize. I’m really sorry for yesterday.  When Helen told me you were from Yellowknife I was so embarrassed.   I would never treat anyone from the North that way.” She insisted I have some caribou soup she had made that morning.

The more I listened the more I could piece together her frustrations. Her complex health needs meant frequent visits to the health centre and explaining her history to each new nurse and doctor who came to town.  Every person she saw changed her treatment, and the next would just change it back again.  Her anger wasn’t really at me.  I was just the latest person she felt she couldn’t trust – the next person who might leave. Helen knew that where I was from would matter to Lucy.  I accepted a second bowl of soup.

Helen never said much about the events after that day. The instrumental broker of trust between our two cultures, she continued on, making sure Lucy and I had a cup of tea at every appointment.

Over the next couple of years, my work in Lucy’s community gradually waned as my life in Yellowknife evolved into a regular job in the emergency department.  One night, I came on shift to see Lucy there. She had been flown in by air ambulance with pneumonia and was awaiting admission to the medical unit upstairs.   She looked tiny and frail and exhausted, curled on her side on the stretcher.  “Hi Lucy.”  She opened up her eyes and studied my face.  It had been a year or more since I had last seen her, but as she recognized me her smile grew.  She could barely extend her arm but she reached up towards me and I took her hand.  “It’s so good to see you” she said. “It’s so good to see a friend.”

- Scott in Yellowknife