Gail Levi knew she wanted to stay in Arctic Bay the moment she arrived to be the hamlet’s chief nurse more than 30 years ago.
“I wanted to see if consistency could make a difference,” she said in an interview at her home, sitting beside her husband, Nataq Levi.
“It definitely does. I think when there’s a foundation of trust, you can use that to build on.”
Levi, 68, retired March 31 after working in the community for 34 years, with a big sendoff from residents.
The day began with a brunch, mainly just with coworkers including other nurses who work under her. They kept attendance small due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Then, firefighters and police vehicles led a parade through town, with Levi seated on a lawn chair in the back of the health centre’s truck.
The parade passed by Inuujaq School, and students stood outside with handmade signs wishing her a happy retirement.
“It just overwhelmed me, all these kids out there with their signs and cheering,” Levi said. “It was just so lovely. I’m going to cry thinking about it. It was so touching.”
Nurse June Sanceda, who planned the day’s events, said Levi has dedicated herself to the hamlet of just under 1,000 residents, and deserved a big honour to celebrate her retirement.
“She’s such a beautiful person with a beautiful soul,” Sanceda said, adding Levi was good to work with, compassionate and calm.
“She was very important to us,” Mayor Moses Oyukuluk said in an interview, through an interpreter.
Oyukuluk, who used to own the taxi that served as an ambulance, recalled times he drove Levi and her patients to the medevac planes at the old Nanisivik mine. The nearest hospital is in Iqaluit, more than 1,200 kilometres away.
“As medevac driver, I remember her quite well for not going to bed early,” he said. “She used to stay up quite a lot.”
Levi said she’s seen many changes in the state of Arctic Bay’s health care over the years.
The first is how well vaccines have worked in preventing illnesses like meningitis and middle-ear infection. When she first arrived, she said, most children treated at the health centre had the latter, but now that’s not the case.
Another change is the amount of alcohol and drugs residents are consuming.
She used to treat drunk people in clinics once or twice a year, but more recently it has felt like once or twice a week, she said.
The biggest challenge, though, was patients who believed she had authority in areas where she didn’t.
For example, some thought Levi was responsible for approving medical travel escorts, when the head office in Pangnirtung actually makes those decisions.
“It sounds like a stupid little thing, but it’s not,” she said, adding patients would get upset with her when escorts didn’t get approved.
One of her fondest memories involved the time Levi, working alone, managed to save a woman who had had a miscarriage and nearly died from blood loss.
Levi said she wondered if the family knew how close the patient came to dying. Then later that year, when residents in town went on the radio to wish people a merry Christmas, the woman’s husband thanked Levi for saving his wife’s life.
“That was like a treasured moment for me,” Levi said.
Even now that she’s been retired for three weeks, she jokes about still having paperwork to do.
That’s because, after starting her career even before fax machines were widely used, it was the increasing dependence on computers – and the paperwork that created – that made her decide to leave.
“I couldn’t get things accomplished that I needed to,” she said, adding that it was also time to do something different.
She was a member of the hamlet’s council before, and thinks she might want to try it again. She’s also on a committee that’s in charge of setting up a daycare in Arctic Bay.
But her retirement leaves a gap in nursing in the hamlet, and Levi said she’s concerned about what will happen next. She will be replaced, but she doesn’t know when or by whom.
“Some people say I’m like the mother [of the health centre]. I want the right person to fill those shoes,” she said.
“I care very much about the people here. I’ve built a lot of good relationships that I think are very positive, and I don’t want to see the relationship with the health centre not carry on that way. I want it to be a healthy, trustful one.”
David Venn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunatsiaq News