Dene identity affects 'every aspect of who I am,' says med school graduate from Wrigley, N.W.T.

Leanne Niziol, a Dene woman from Wrigley, N.W.T., recently graduated from medical school in Manitoba. (Submitted by Leanna Niziol - image credit)

Leanne Niziol says growing up in Wrigley, N.W.T., she didn't see any First Nations doctors.

"That was a really significant gap that I wanted to change," Niziol said.

She recently graduated from the University of Manitoba's Doctor of Medicine program, a career she says has been a dream of hers since she was little

Niziol, originally from Pehdzeh Ki First Nation in Wrigley, is thought to be the first Dene doctor to come from that community.

"It's been a lot of emotions, it's been a long road to completing this program. And I just feel really happy and grateful to be done and be closer to home and to start my residency," she said.

About 14 members of her family travelled to Winnipeg from Ontario, Alberta, Yukon and N.W.T. to watch her graduate last month.

Niziol said her late grandfather was her main inspiration to go into medicine.

"He was a medicine man. His life and way of being was something that impacted me significantly," she said. "He really taught me what it means to live a good life guided by our Dene culture and way of being," she said.

Role models 'critical to our success'

She also said growing up in a remote community, with limited access to health care pushed her to pursue a career in medicine.

"My identity as a Dene really influences every aspect of who I am," she said.

But it wasn't easy.

"As a first-generation medical doctor, for me, moving away from my community, people and family was one of the most significant challenges," she said.

It was also important for her to build a support system with her classmates, she said.

"Another challenge was having to navigate an unfamiliar educational institute and an academically challenging program," she said. "I met other Indigenous doctors and there was other Indigenous students in my program."

Now, she sees herself as a role model for other Indigenous students.

"I think that having role models is critical to our success because just seeing a reflection of yourself and your goals and your dreams is important. It makes a difference in your confidence and how you plan on achieving that."

Niziol said she also sees trust between herself and the Indigenous patients she cares for.

"There are a lot of commonalities among Indigenous people when it comes to our values and beliefs. I think that as an Indigenous doctor, it is something that is very special," she said.

"With Indigenous patients there is also a common understanding and also a common lived experience of how we navigate the world around us. It is different than non-Indigenous people."

Niziol will start a two-year residency in family medicine at the University of Alberta in July.