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Elders speak out
Ulukhaktok health centre needs translator immediately, say residents

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 27, 2013

Elders in Ulukhaktok say they are alarmed by a lack of critical translating services at their local health centre.

"They all know each others' stories, they talk amongst themselves or they hear other elders' concerns," said Laverna Klengenberg, chair of the Ulukhaktok Community Corporation. "At our recent AGM, we had a lot of elders speak out about their experiences with the health centre and also at another public meeting."

Many of the community's elders have been left in the dark about their medical care since the health centre's interpreter retired almost two years ago, said Agnes Kuptana, a hamlet councillor and chair of the elders' committee.

She said because staff at the health centre can't speak Inuinnaqtun fluently, nurses aren't able to properly communicate vital health information to unilingual elders. There are at least eight unilingual elders living in Ulukhaktok, Klengenberg said.

Without proper translating services, critical instructions about how to take medications are being misunderstood, many elders can't understand procedures being performed

during medical visits and they are being left anxious and worried, Kuptana said.

"It's really frustrating," she said. "Instead of getting better, they (elders) would walk out and get worse."

Klengenberg said problems began after the health centre's clerk/interpreter retired after more than 30 years of service. New staff hired to replace her do not speak Inuinnaqtun fluently, she said.

"It's been a year and a half since she retired," Klengenberg said. "A lot of concerns and issues started to arise because of a lack of translation services there."

Klengenberg said some elders have become so stressed, they now avoid going to the health centre at all.

Susan Kaodloak, mayor of Ulukhaktok, said the issue is discussed at almost every hamlet council meeting.

"We are getting a lot more complaints and concerns and they're asking us if we can do something about it," she said.

In the fall of 2012 and again last spring, the Ulukhaktok Community Corporation sent letters highlighting residents' concerns to the Beaufort Delta Health and Social Services Authority (BDHSSA), territorial health minister Tom Beaulieu and Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson.

Klengenberg said while she has spoken to representatives from the health department, little action has been taken.

"They say they want to help, they understand our concerns, they want to address them but ... there hasn't been any real effort on their part," she said.

Owen Partridge, the chief executive officer of the Beaufort Delta Health and Social Services Authority, said the health department also sent a written response to the community about its concerns.

Partridge, who has been the authority's CEO for only about two weeks, read from a letter in response to the community corporation's most recent letter of concern, stating the department had been unable to find someone who speaks Inuinnaqtun fluently.

"We've not been able to hire a person with clerical interpreter skills," he stated. "Health care staff often advise elders and clients they can bring their own interpreter."

But Kaptuna said it's difficult for elders to rely on family and friends to take time off work to accompany them to every appointment.

"When you have an elder who is by herself and her immediate family has a job with hamlet or government and there is no way to get a hold of them, an elder would sit there and be treated and not know what is happening," she said.

Klengenberg said even if the department can't find a bilingual individual for that particular job, a translator at the health centre should be a requirement.

"If they can't get somebody who is fluent for that position, they should hire a translator for that service alone, even if it's on an as-needed basis," she said.

Partridge said while translators could be used to give general information, health centres in the territory also need trained medical translators to properly convey information.

"You get into problems with people who may be able to do the general gist, but when you start talking medical terminology, it doesn't translate directly or well," he said.

In its review of the 2004-2005 Annual Report of the Languages Commissioner, the NWT Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight recommended a program to train interpreters, with a special focus on medical translators. The program would take place at Aurora College.

In a subsequent report published in 2008, the Languages Commissioner stated no progress had been made towards establishing interpreter programs.

Partridge said training medical translators would take time.

"Trying to learn a language, it's not a two-week course, it's an ongoing thing," he said. "Trying to learn the medical language and feel comfortable translating it, there is no short-term fix for it."

He also said Ulukhaktok's situation is not unique.

"I think that the language interpretation situation isn't just isolated to that community, I think it's a territorial-wide problem, or opportunity," he said. "We are mindful of it. The hard part is trying to find staff who actually fit the bill to do all these things and who actually want to do it."

Kuptana said without translators, elders are vulnerable.

She said she knows from personal experience what can happen when medical conditions are left untreated. Kuptana said she suffered from a double hernia for more than two years and visited the health centre many times, but staff sent her home.

She said she spent those years treating herself with Tylenol and a hot water bottle to combat the pain.

Kuptana said she finally called the BDHSSA office in Inuvik herself and spoke to a doctor, who advised her to travel to Inuvik where she was diagnosed and scheduled for surgery in September 2012.

She said while her ability to speak English allowed her to communicate her medical condition with health care workers, she worries for elders who can't.

Kuptana said the community's elders hope that by speaking out, the government will be compelled to fix the problems.

"We are screaming for help here," she said.

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