Sarah Petrescu / Times Colonist
Like many isolated First Nations on Vancouver Island, Ahousaht has limited access to emergency medical response.
The small community of about 1,000 residents on Flores Island is 20 kilometres west of Tofino, and reachable only by boat or float plane. While there is one paramedic on the island, reaching an ambulance to get to a hospital is a challenge.
“You have to charter a water taxi to get to the dock in Tofino. That’s as far as the ambulance will go. It could be 45 minutes, if the weather is rough,” said Jacquie Adams, who travelled to the South Island this week for a program training members of rural Island First Nations to be first responders in their communities.
Adams was a paramedic nearly three decades ago and has also done occupational first aid. She decided to refresh her skills to help her community.
“We are so limited, we have to do something,” said Adams, who was joined by three other Ahousaht members for the training.
The pilot project is a partnership between the Canadian Red Cross, First Nations Health Authority and the participating nations. The intensive one-week program will train 21 members of six Island First Nations to be licensed emergency medical assistants.
“There’s a need for something like this, as a lot of these native communities take a minimum of 45 minutes to reach by ambulance — and some by only boat or helicopter,” said Richard Elliott, the Red Cross project co-ordinator.
Students gathered in groups around mock burn victims, filled out responder reports and workbooks, and broke for a soup and bannock lunch at the Tsawout First Nation community centre in Saanich Wednesday.
Elliot said they are learning to deal with emergencies from heart attacks and broken bones to choking and wounds. After a written exam, the students’ final test this weekend will be a mock emergency situation where they’ll have to treat patients.
“Training multiple community members provides these individuals with an opportunity to support the community when in need immediately … [and] ensures there will always be someone available,” said Richard Jock, vice-president of policy, planning, and strategic services with the FNHA. “Also training community members ensures the person who is the first responder knows the community, is culturally competent and safe, and can then help inform other service providers at the scene.”
Willie Moon came to the training from Kingcome Inlet, where there is no paramedic or first responder and diabetes symptoms are a major concern. Karen Reec came from Alert Bay, where there is road access to paramedics and a hospital, but she wanted to be equipped to help children at Alert Bay Elementary School, where she works. Dennis Hetu is the sole paramedic in Toquaht Nation in Barclay Sound. He attended to support a participant from his community and because he’d like to teach others.
“People in remote communities are already safety-conscious but it’s good to have the training,” he said.
Kyle Harry, from Zeballos-Ehattesaht, has had some first-responder training. He said he recently gave CPR to an elderly man lying unconscious on the highway outside Campbell River. He thinks the training is important so his community has backup responders when the local paramedics are busy.
“To take someone to the hospital is an hour and a half on a logging road just to reach Port McNeill,” he said.
Alex Jules travelled more than eight hours from his home in Kyoquot, a small community on the northwest coast of the Island, about a 45-minute boat ride from Fair Harbour, outside Zeballos.
“It’s out there,” said Jules, who returned to his community with his wife and children after studying at Vancouver Island University to become the director of community service.
About 170 people live in the area permanently but the population swells to 500 in the summer because of nearby fishing lodges. Emergency services arrive by boat or helicopter.
Jules said there is a nurse who comes to Kyoquot but that she is sometimes uncomfortable going to people’s homes to treat them at night or if they’ve been using substances.
“One of the reasons we’re taking this is so that we can offer some support,” Jules said.
Another major concern with access to emergency services is the number of children in the community, he said, estimating youth make up more than half the population.
“I’d see the chopper come once a week for young children, with breathing problems and other issues,” Jules said. “My goal is to reach out to youth to take a lead in the safety of our community.”