Ojibway / Saulteaux interpreter retires after almost 30 years of service

Dorine Nepinak at her retirement tea.
Dorine Nepinak at the retirement tea held on Sept. 29 at Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg.
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Evolution of the Aboriginal Health Programs

WRHA Aboriginal Health Programs

Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, September 30, 2016

The longest-serving Indigenous language interpreter retires today, after almost 30 years of working in Winnipeg’s health-care system.

Dorine Nepinak will have been translating for Ojibway and Saulteaux speakers for 28 years and eight months, when she retires on September 30.

Nepinak began her career as an interpreter at Children’s Hospital, and at various points, has worked in all the hospitals in Winnipeg. She has seen the interpretation program grow from a small group of people to a program that provides a continuum of care for Indigenous people and their families, through integration and coordination of services.

Dr. Catherine Cook, Vice President Population and Aboriginal Health for the Region, notes that Aboriginal Health Programs has come a long way from only having a handful of interpreters to offering a more holistic array of services for Indigenous people using the health-care system.

“The retirement of interpreter/resource worker Dorine Nepinak is definitely a milestone for Aboriginal Health Programs, in that it marks our presence in the Region and reminds us of the work we are still hoping to accomplish,” says Cook.

Nepinak grew up speaking Ojibway/Saulteaux. “My dad spoke Saulteaux, which is from the original Ojibway language. It has a lot of French words mixed in,” she says.

She started out life near Camperville, but after the death of her father, her mother moved the family to Toronto when Nepinak was in Grade 5. Nepinak moved back to Manitoba and in 1982, she took a two-year course on helping people with chemical dependencies. She worked in that field for a while, and also taught art part-time at Marion School.

In 1987, she was hired as an interpreter at Children’s Hospital. At the time, Indigenous children were often sent to hospital by themselves, without relatives or an escort. Many didn’t speak English. At the time, she was employed by what was called the Native Services department.

“We were on the second floor of the Community Services building, and six of us sat at a long table in a very small room. We only had one phone, and no computer,” says Nepinak, adding that she used to walk the wards and clinics at Children’s Hospital, talking to patients. Some of those young patients she met then have grown up, and are bringing their families to meet her.

In the mid-1990s, the department she worked in changed from Native Services, which worked in the Nursing program, to being called Aboriginal Services, which reported to the corporate office at HSC.

During that time, she continued to interpret between patients and the health-care teams. It was always important to translate the exact meaning of each side of the equation.

“Interpreting without changing the meaning means that if a patient is really unhappy, you have to tell the doctor what they said,” she says.

At one point, she was the acting coordinator of the department, and she also worked on intake, by filling out forms and assigning interpreters to cases. She remembers when summers used to see a lessening of requests for interpretation. “Patients used to be sent home for summer vacation,” she says. “Dialysis patients could go home for a week. But for the last few years, we haven’t seen that happening. We’re seeing more kids needing dialysis and awaiting transplants.”

When the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority was established in 1999, Nepinak did intake for three years at the Region’s offices on Carlton Street. “But I missed working with the patients, so I went back to HSC as an interpreter/case worker.”

She also worked at Seven Oaks General Hospital for three years, at which point her job title became interpreter / resource worker. “We specialized in sending people who wanted traditional medicine to Elders. We could connect patients to traditional and cultural resources, and help them learn how to navigate the health system.”

During her career, she has worked in all the hospitals in Winnipeg. She took a medical terminology course, which helped her become familiar with medical procedures. She’s often been called upon to help explain what a health-care professional would like to do with a patient.

She remembers a time when interpreters were only available during daytime hours during the work week, and not on weekends.

“There was an elderly lady who came in with appendicitis. The call went out over the intercom, asking for interpretation, and a man answered. But he was another patient, and he didn’t know anything about the medical procedure, and told the woman that the doctors wanted to cut her open,” says Nepinak. “I spoke to her on the Monday after the weekend, and she told me that she didn’t know what happened, but that she was happy to have her hands and feet!”

She has a cast-iron stomach when it comes to participating in medical procedures, including doing interpretation during Caesarian sections, when the patient is awake.

Along the way, she’s had a chance to participate in promoting the Indigenous language interpretation service at Winnipeg’s hospitals. She once acted in a video which became a teaching tool for patients in the Cardiology program, speaking Ojibway and Saulteaux. This was shown to patients so they would understand what would be done to them after a heart attack. She also took part in another video on kidney failure and dialysis.

Nepinak wasn’t planning to retire until 2017, but her 44-year old son is undergoing an operation this fall, and she wants to be there to help him recover. “After that, I’m going to sit inside my house and drink a coffee, and watch all the other people catch the bus when it’s -40 outside,” she says with a laugh, adding that she’d like to take up tai chi in order to keep limber.

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