Brazilian nurse practitioner finds sense of community in Digby

When Gabriela Vellego drove off the ferry last summer and into Digby, N.S., with her husband and three-year-old son in tow, she knew instantly this would be her new home.

Her family had been living outside Montreal and were looking forward to an East Coast vacation. She had no idea that vacation would become such a turning point in her life.

"It's definitely the best thing that's happened to us," she says.   

Today, Vellego is one of three nurse practitioners working at the Digby Health Services Centre.

An accidental journey

Her accidental journey here started in her home city of Sao Paulo, Brazil — the fourth largest city on the planet with a population of more than 12 million people. It's a world away from Digby, population: 2,000. What the two do share is the Atlantic Ocean.

"I had all these childhood memories of living near the sea and having that experience and that's something that I'd like to share with my husband and kid and I thought, 'Why not? That could be so nice,'" she says.

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Vellego earned her nursing degree in Sao Paulo and eventually moved to Montreal where she spent 10 years as a registered nurse.

She got her masters of nursing from Laval University and earned her qualifications as a nurse practitioner.

Along the way, she became multilingual. Portuguese is her first language but after 10 years in Quebec, she now speaks fluent French. She picked up German from her husband and eventually took on English as her fourth language.

Though she speaks it fluently — with a distinct Portuguese accent — Vellego says her command of the language was the only professional hurdle to starting her new life in Digby.

She took English tests required by the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia, but failed three times.

"It was harder than I expected," she says.

Compared to the French test she took in Quebec — and passed on her first try — she found the English tests to be more demanding and not based on any practical day-to-day nursing.

"I feel comfortable with my patients," she says. "But the writing part was so academic."

Eventually, the college was satisfied with her English-speaking skills and she settled into her practice at the Digby Health Services Centre.

Settling in Digby

On this September afternoon after lunch, one of Vellego's patients, Thomas Haynes-Paton, has come by for a routine visit.

"I guess so far I've been quite impressed with her knowledge and background," says Haynes-Paton. "And more importantly, her willingness to listen."

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It's a virtue appreciated in a small town.

Last week, Haynes-Paton's community group, the St. Mary's Bay Community Centre, hosted a square dance fundraiser. Vellego and her family were among those in attendance, he says.

"That felt very good." 

Vellego says it's the intimacy of working in small towns that she loves the most.

"I share the same supermarkets. I share the same roads, so I know the problems. And I can connect with the people in that way because that's the magic of being a part of a small community."

As of Tuesday, there were 174 nurse practitioners working in Nova Scotia compared to 113 in 2013. Of those 174, 90 practise in Halifax and the rest are scattered all over rural Nova Scotia.

A spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Health Authority in Yarmouth says they're actively seeking one more nurse practitioner to complement the staff in Digby.

Vellego says she believes the authority could make better use of social media to showcase the province and lure health-care professionals to rural areas, like the community she quickly decided would become her home.

"That's the kind of community sense that I could not find in Sao Paulo — my hometown — or Montreal or Halifax."

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