Childhood trauma inspires Dene woman to help others in hospital

Despite living over 1,360 kilometres away from her home community for five decades, a Tlicho woman has held onto her language and culture after using it to help others when she was younger.  

Virginia Heiner grew up in Dene community of Behchoko in the Northwest Territories, but at a young age she had to spend long stints at the hospital in Edmonton after contracting polio. She said she had extensive operations on both of her legs and had to relearn how to walk. 

Being taken away from her family who were "bushland nomadic people" because of an illness beyond her control was a traumatic experience, Heiner said. 

"I knew what it was like to have fear and apprehension and being in that total strange environment called [a] hospital where there was white uniformed nurses and doctors running around." 

Other Indigenous children from the North were also taken to the hospital to get treatment for polio, tuberculosis and whooping cough. Heiner said with the language barrier, it was difficult for many of them to bond with doctors and nurses.

'I had a great compassion for them'

When she was 20 years old, Heiner moved to Edmonton permanently, but she never forgot her difficult experiences from childhood. She decided to go back to the hospital to help translate for other Tlicho patients. 

"I had a great compassion for them," she said. "It was one of the things that I did not need to be told to do it. It was inside my heart."

Heiner said the most difficult part of retaining her language was not having daily one-on-one contact with Tlicho speakers. But she said she has a photographic-like memory and would learn words she didn't know from elders in the hospital. 

"They knew that I was eager to learn and understand the language," she said. "They would say it and I would repeat until I had it right."

I knew what it was like to have fear and apprehension and being in that total strange environment called [a] hospital.  - Virginia Heiner

Heiner said although she may have been a nuisance at times, the elders, who she called her "professors," were patient, loving and compassionate. 

"If I didn't say it the correct way, they would laugh and we would share a laugh and a handshake." 

Now Heiner is encouraging young Indigenous people not to give up on learning their language noting she was told not to speak her language when she went to school.

"I go back in time to that 19, 20-year-old who wanted me to speak the forbidden language," she said. "And I was hired by the government to speak that language ... It shows that things can turn around for the better."