Dene woman enters medical school in hopes of serving North

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Leanne Niziol, a nurse originally from Wrigley, N.W.T., is getting set to take the next step in her medical journey. She’s heading to the University of Manitoba in the fall to become a doctor. (Samantha Stuart Photography)
For many youth in small communities in the Northwest Territories, in Canada’s central Arctic, becoming a doctor is a dream: an incredible idea, seemingly out of reach.

However, a Dene woman is aiming to change that by transitioning from a career in nursing into medical school at the University of Manitoba this fall. Afterward, she’s planning to return to the North to inspire others to follow in her footsteps.

Leanne Niziol was born and raised in the community of Wrigley, N.W.T., which has a population of about 120 people.

“I was raised close to my family and my Dene culture,” she said. “We went on the land a lot. I have many fond memories of growing up there.”

Niziol relocated to Yellowknife, N.W.T. in grade school, following her mother, who had to leave their community to pursue her own education.

Niziol went to Aurora College’s nursing program. After a couple of years working at the hospital in Yellowknife, she returned to the college, this time pursuing a master’s degree in nursing.

Her decision to pursue health care was in part established by her grandfather Wilson Pelissey, who was a traditional healer.

“He was born with that gift and left a long legacy of helping others,” she said. “I want to continue that legacy.”

Niziol poses with a photo of her grandfather, Wilson Pelissey, who was a traditional healer. She says she wants to continue his legacy. (Samantha Stuart Photography)

Completing her master’s degree in 2015 “was a big step,” said Niziol, who was then able to do community health-care work in small clinics.

“A big drive behind that was wanting to do more for my people. There’s not a lot of Indigenous health-care providers.”

A study published by the Gordon Foundation noted that as of 2017, only one doctor in the N.W.T. was Indigenous. Niziol said that in her life and career, she never worked with an Indigenous doctor or was treated by one.

“In 2019, that just seems like there’s something wrong with that picture,” she said.

Aiming to fix that, Niziol took her biggest step so far: applying for medical school.

‘I want to serve my community’

The application process was difficult and expensive, and, without a strong science background, Niziol came into it at a disadvantage. She enrolled in a prep program in Edmonton and relocated her life to prepare for the medical school entrance exams.

“It was a lot of financial hardship,” said Niziol, who noted that because the MCAT prep program was not a credit course, she was not eligible for some government assistance.

“But I knew I had to do it. I had to dedicate myself more. I had to study harder than my counterparts.”

The work paid off: Niziol received a competitive score on the MCAT, and applied to several medical schools. After a lengthy application process that included multiple rounds of interviewing, she received good news from the University of Manitoba’s MD program.

Niziol said the response from her home community was “overwhelming.”

“It’s great because it has been such a long, hard journey and having those supports there have been really key to my success,” she said.

Niziol says she hopes to be a role model for youth in small communities. ‘You can be the first one in your family, the first one from your community. It just takes hard work and dedication.’ (Samantha Stuart Photography)

Niziol still has a long road ahead of her — her MD program will take four years, then likely longer for a specialization.

However, she’s encouraging others to follow in her footsteps.

“If you come from a small community, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “You can be the first one in your family, the first one from your community. It just takes hard work and dedication.”

After graduation, it’s almost a given where Niziol plans to ply her trade.

“I definitely want to come back to the North. I want to serve my people and community.”

Written by Garrett Hinchey, based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Naturopath from Northern Canada publishes book challenging assumptions around Indigenous medicine, CBC News

Finland: Doctor shortage in South, patient shortage in North during Finland’s summer, Yle News

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One thought on “Dene woman enters medical school in hopes of serving North

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    24 July 2019 at 2 h 32 min
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    Dene takes the footsteps in north for medical school. which will be sort out issues of the people who is living near that area or town.

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