Dr. Nicole Cardinal has been recognized and looked up to in the local area as a physician working and serving her home community of Saddle Lake, but she recently was recognized by the University of Alberta for her leadership in indigenous health.
Cardinal will receive an Alumni Horizon Award from the university on Sept. 25, an award meant to recognize the outstanding career achievements and contributions of recent graduates.
“Nicole Cardinal, ’12 MD, goes beyond her clinical role as a doctor at the Saddle Lake Health and Wellness Centre to improve the physical and emotional health of her community,” states a press release from the University of Alberta. It noted that Cardinal buys and delivers fresh food to community members through her Health Food Box program, presents on health and prevention and at diabetes conferences, and works with Alberta Health Services through its Indigenous Health Strategic Clinical Network.
Cardinal’s interest in working in the health care field was piqued after doing a placement at the local health care centre, back when she was in junior high.
“I wanted to work in the health care field, I just didn’t know what that aspect would look like,” she said, explaining she applied to the University of Alberta’s medical program, and was accepted, graduating in 2012.
Her interest in working in aboriginal health took her to northern Saskatchewan as she did locums in rural communities such as Île-ŕ-la-Crosse and Spiritwood.
“I knew eventually I would come home, I just needed some experience, I think,” she said, adding she came back to Saddle Lake to practice both at the Saddle Lake Health Care Centre and the St. Therese Health Centre.
However, she notes that not everyone has the same exposure or background, which can sometimes affect First Nations’ people’s experience of health care – a reason for aspiring doctors to learn more about aboriginal health.
“It’s important because a lot of our community members go to Edmonton and feel they’re out of place there, and feel like they’re not listened to,” she said, adding that there is a fear or conception amongst First Nations people that doctors in urban centres don’t understand where they are coming from, or the specific challenges they face, whether that’s social issues, transportation issues, or family issues.
The alumni award also recognizes Cardinal’s initiative to expose and educate medical students in the field of rural and aboriginal health, according to the University’s press release.
Cardinal had a long-time connection with Dr. Jill Konkin, an associate dean in Community Engagement department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta. Both began talking about the possibility of Cardinal working to create an elective for first and second-year medical students with an interest in aboriginal health.
Over the past year, Cardinal has taken students on placements in Saddle Lake, with her third student working in the community right now. A past student came from as far as Hamilton, Ont. for the placement, and Cardinal expressed surprise and delight in seeing that news of the opportunity was spreading and being embraced.
“I wasn’t too sure what it was going to look like, but so far, the feedback has been so positive. The kids have enjoyed coming here, and the community’s been very responsive to them,” she said.
As a rural physician, Cardinal notes the students are exposed to a variety of medical experiences, whether it’s spending time in emergency, providing surgical assistance, going on home care visits and spending time with nurses. Not only do they get some firsthand experience and knowledge working with First Nations people, and in aboriginal health, but the community also benefits from their presence, she said.
While she notes she didn’t begin the placements with a view to win recognition or awards, the alumni award was a sign that the initiative is worthy.
“It’s pretty neat that I was nominated for this award,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m going in the right direction with this.”