Thunder Bay Regional breaks down barriers

Spiritual guide serves Indigenous patients

Michael Robinson and Trina Diner claim that cultural and language barriers, travelling to a big city for care, and other challenges can make accessing health care stressful for Indigenous patients. Traditional healing services help to make care more culturally relevant.

“There’s an understanding that Native spirituality’s presence can help break down these pre-existing barriers, be it communications, cultural misunderstandings, or a fear of being in the institution.” – Michael Robinson, Spiritual Care Provider, Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre


Travelling for health care can be an added stress for anyone, but it can be particularly difficult for Indigenous patients in Northern Ontario where language and cultural barriers, unfamiliarity with the Western medical system, and going to a big city are overwhelming.
“They’re essentially walking into a building that is bigger than their community, so that’s a scary thought in itself,” said Michael Robinson, a spiritual care provider at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.
For years, Thunder Bay Regional has actively worked to break down those barriers, not in the least by creating Robinson’s position in the first place. Robinson is both a spiritual guide for Indigenous beliefs and a deacon in the Catholic Church. He was born in Sault Ste. Marie, and is a member of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Over the three years Robinson has helped Indigenous patients, his workload has increased as word of his presence spreads.
“A lot of First Nations people from isolated communities are skipping over the referral process and actually just walking into my office,” Robinson said. That’s a good sign that people know about the service and that it serves a huge need. “They’re comfortable enough to start telling me their life story.”
Indigenous health is one of the five key directions in Thunder Bay Regional’s 2020 Strategic Plan. Spiritual care is just one area, but it illustrates one of the ways the hospital is meeting a previously unmet need.
“Fifty per cent of our referrals (to spiritual care) were for Indigenous patients,” said Trina Diner, manager of the Regional Stroke Network, Telemedicine, Spiritual Care, and the Tbaytel Tamarack House at Thunder Bay Regional. “It’s really a natural way for us to look at what increased services we can provide in that area.”
Another example is smudging. It’s been available to patients at Thunder Bay Regional for several years, but since Robinson joined the hospital, smudging ceremonies have jumped from one or two times per month to almost daily.
“There are a lot of unmet needs that we’re not even aware of,” Diner said. Again, this comes down to cultural differences and a basic mistrust of institutions. “We as an institution are learning.”
In some ways, expanding that spiritual learning has been the conduit to building trust and improving health care for Indigenous patients. Robinson told the story of one patient who had gone to residential school and who was taught that smudging was “evil.” Over time, the patient began talking with him about Indigenous spirituality and began smudging. That’s when the patient began talking about residential school experiences, getting onto the path of spiritual healing.
The story is not unique. Every patient has a story, Robinson said. “There is some traumatic story that has influenced the outcome of their life. Some people have chosen drugs and alcohol to suppress those feelings and traumas they’ve gone through. Other people actively work to make themselves better, and either share their story or try to help prevent those instances from spreading.”
It’s also an example of how spiritual care is an integral part of what Indigenous patients view as “health care” – it’s much more intertwined than it is in Western medicine. Understanding that and addressing that is making a difference.
Robinson provides many other spiritual care services. He facilitates drumming ceremonies, both during end of life and as a calming exercise for patients, and even helps patients make their own drums. Planned excursions to a sweat lodge for mobile patients allow them to take part in an important part of the Indigenous healing process and in February, the hospital launched a Journey to Wellness program for men with trauma in their past.
Robinson said that over the years that he’s been at the hospital, he’s seen positive results.
“I think there is more trust. There are still communication barriers, but we see the nurses reaching out to the patient navigators to translate,” Robinson said. “There’s an understanding that Native spirituality’s presence can help break down these pre-existing barriers, be it communications, cultural misunderstandings, or a fear of being in the institution.”

Filed in: All Content, First Nations

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