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Heart of our City: Mary Wesley - A lifeline between despair and hope

On a daily basis, Mary is talking to Aboriginal medical patients who are going through one of the most trying times in their life.
Mary Wesley has been helping Aboriginal patients from remote villages at the Prince Rupert Hospital for seven years as a liaison and another 20 as a care-aid.

For most people reading this, Prince Rupert is home.

It’s the paradoxically laid-back but ever speculative, rainy but gorgeous North Coast that a lot of residents wouldn’t imagine trading for anything else.

But for those visiting from nearby villages, specifically those who have been in contact with Mary Wesley, Prince Rupert can be a scary, unpredictable and intimidating city.

That’s because on a daily basis, Mary is talking to Aboriginal medical patients who are going through one of the most trying times in their life that they’ll ever experience.

For them, Mary is their lifeline between despair and hope. Her position as Northern Health Prince Rupert’s Aboriginal patient liaison worker has taken her all over the region and her journey as a caregiver started early.

“In my upbringing I was a primary caregiver to my siblings and with my grandmother being ailing and elderly, I became an automatic caregiver. That enticed me in that direction, moving forward,” she said last week in a sunny Prince Rupert Regional Hospital fourth-floor educational meeting room.

“I watched over my siblings and cared for them and walked them home from school. If other kids were harassing them, I was always there protecting them, so to speak – I was the big sister.”

Mary has four younger siblings and one older one. She returned to school to follow her instinctual path of helping others and caring for the needy.

“I took the nursing assistant program and from there I took additional courses [at Booth Memorial and Northwest Community College] ... and I worked in a number of group homes as an assistant director [from seniors’ homes] to adolescents and teen mom group homes, I ran and operated a lot of these [facilities],” said Mary.

Her introduction to Northern Health came in the form of two-year casual work until she found full-time employment as a nursing assistant [or care-aid].

“I took on a caring position for 20 years and currently I’ve been in this role for the last seven years,” she said.

Mary will soon be receiving her honorary 25-year commemorative pin from Northern Health and even though the subject matter can be dark and dreary at times, she’s met every opportunity that the position brings head on.

“I roll with the punches,” she said.

“The pace is different every day. What’s in front of you is a challenge ... and that’s what I thrive on – moving forward. That entices me in terms of helping my Aboriginal people and villages, particularly when they come over here and they’ve never gotten off the rock. For example, in Kitkatla, [most of them have] lived there almost their whole life, then transferring to Prince Rupert for medical reasons, it’s scary for them.”

Mary is one of nine Aboriginal liaison officers in the Northwest who assist with communication and transportation of patients.

A typical day could involve arranging for translators, getting in contact with village health officials and learning a patient’s situation, helping patients understand procedures, medical terminology and health care processes, giving hospital tours, arranging patient care conferences, visitations by family and friends, promoting health care services within First Nations communities and bridging differences between “Euro-Canadian and First Nations health care philosophies through learning opportunities” as a Northern Health brochure outlines.

Along with travelling to some of the First Nations communities, Mary has even coordinated a yearly informational and screening booth at the All-Native Basketball Tournament in the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre which tests hundreds of people for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes risks who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to take advantage of the medical resources. The readings and results are available immediately after Mary and the health officials have finished the tests on location.

Sometimes, Prince Rupert is only a pitstop on the patient’s way to Prince George or Vancouver and that’s when things can get really scary.

“My role is to get an escort that they’re comfortable with, whether it’s a family member or spouse to support them on this journey in regards to recovery and going down the right road in their health issues,” Mary said.

The liaison takes on anywhere from one to 20 patients in a day – some of them temporarily in her care, some on a more long-term basis.

“There could be three patients from outside the community coming here, or up to seven or eight depending on how busy it is and then I have the [more] permanent ones in acute care and then maternity patients ... so I’m responsible for those case loads of First Nations patients who are admitted to the hospital so in my actual day I could have a census of 20 patients or I could have a census of two patients,” she said.

Above all else, Mary enjoys being able to provide a comforting presence to her patients that she works with and, often, they return bearing their thanks.

“I like the positives. When they come in here and I sit and chat with them. I tell them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to see the positives. We weigh it out and talk to them and they’re beside themselves and it’s all negative, negative, negative ... so we turn the wheels a little bit and they come back and they thank me. [They say] ‘that was the darkest moment of my life, Mary and you came through for me’. So they come back and recognize me and thank me for that and that’s an honour,” she said.

It was Mary’s late grandmother who passed away from cancer years ago, Elizabeth Douglas, who the Rupertite can trace back to encouraging her down the path of caregiving.

“I’d like to thank her very much because she inspired me and enticed me to go down this road and in this direction. She had seen in her eyes the light of what I have to offer and the strength in me and I’d like to look up to her today and thank her,” said Mary.