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Dr. Marlyn Cook in her office.

Dr. Marlyn Cook in her office.

Trailblazing doctor wins 2019 Indspire Award

October 24, 2018 — 

Dr. Marlyn Cook has come full circle.

As one of the first female Indigenous physicians to graduate from the U of M’s Max Rady College of Medicine, Marlyn Cook [MD/87], is used to paving her own way.

“I’ve incorporated traditional healing methods with Western medicine in my practice; when I first started talking about this in the early 90s, you could hear a pin drop in the room.”

Now, the Cree woman from Misipawistik Cree Nation and physician with Ongomiizwin – Health Services has been named a recipient of the national 2019 Indspire Award for her career working on reserve lands and advocacy work to reshape medicine in First Nations communities.  

Cook says she’s come “full-circle”; practicing medicine in her hometown as a family physician in the Ongomiizwin Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing within the U of M’s Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. 

Blazing a trail

With roots growing up in a northern reserve, Cook says she was frustrated when she first began in the medical field as a nurse and saw the way Indigenous patients were treated in care.

“I was watching people come from the communities into tertiary care centres and leaving with the same social problems and poor health outcomes – nothing was changing.”

At the same time, the U of M had recently launched a program to recruit Indigenous physicians, having recognized a need to bridge this gap. When a friend gave her a pamphlet on the program, Cook said she felt like she was being given permission to take action on the changes she wanted to see happen.

“I was accepted within the first intake and because of my background as a nurse, was voted ‘most likely to succeed.’”

Despite her strong foundation of knowledge going into the program, the words of a tutor hindered her own belief in her abilities and nearly stopped her from graduating.

“I was told the rest of the students accepted me, but didn’t think I was going to make it through. I let those negative words come into my being and I failed my first year. When I came back, I told myself every day that I was going to do it.”

Going back, Cook recommitted to her goal of practicing family medicine in reserve communities by diversifying her residency to include specialties she would have to perform on her own as the sole physician in isolated fly-in communities.

“I had a talent for obstetrics and my mentor wanted me to specialize in it but I knew I needed to learn things like pediatrics and orthopedics; I’d be doing my own casting in these communities.”

From treatment to healing

Cook also began to look outside of her medical training for healers and knowledge in traditional healing – an area she knew was missing from school and Western medicine.

Her practice weaves together Western and traditional practices to ensure that the body, mind, and spirit of each patient is cared for.

“I said I can’t just be practicing Western medicine because it’s not going to fix this. I learned a lot about procedures, drugs and disease, but not about what would help my community heal … all the drugs in the world are not going to fix the Indigenous peoples of this land.”

Cook recounts the case that saddened her most: a 19-year-old patient needing treatment for acute renal failure who had endured family abuse growing up. Without family, Cook’s clinic was the main source of support for the woman and her three children, but before Cook could return to the community for a visit, the patient had died by suicide. A year later, the patient’s young son attempted to take his own life. This case cemented Cook’s belief that traditional therapies would intervene with generational abuse and help families heal.

“Throughout my 30 plus years of being a physician, it’s the ceremonies that I see getting the people back their identity and self-esteem and pride in knowing who they are.”

In addition to being a family physician within Ongomiizwin Health Services at the University of Manitoba, Cook is now working with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) as part of clinical care transformation team to look at ways to incorporate traditional healing into Manitoba’s health care system.

By accepting the 2019 Indspire Award, Cook says she’s been able to talk about the importance of the way she delivers care to patients and the need for this approach to be used across all First Nations communities. Now, through the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing and Rady Faculty of Health Sciences at the U of M, Cook will be bringing this approach to speak to first year medical students later this year – a class that includes her own daughter.

“I didn’t grow up with ceremonies or traditional healing in my community. She has the advantage of knowing all of this going into medical school. She’s ahead.”

Representing the highest honour the Indigenous community bestows upon its own achievers, the Indspire Awards were created in 1993, in conjunction with the United Nation’s International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The Awards recognize Indigenous professionals and youth who demonstrate outstanding career achievement. They promote self-esteem and pride for Indigenous communities and provide outstanding role models for Indigenous youth.

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6 comments on “Trailblazing doctor wins 2019 Indspire Award

  1. Sonja Lundström

    Congratulations Marlyn! You were part of our book club and enlightened me in your way of seeing life experiences that I will always cherish. This recognition makes everyone proud.

  2. Elma Brandt

    I am thrilled to read this report!! Although my roots are in a culture not connected to indigenous people, I have been aware of some of these issues. Some awareness came from people I connected with at UofM 1972-1976. I had indigenous friends there with Marilyn’s family name but regrettably lost contact with them.

  3. Keith Meloff

    Congratulations Marilyn- I a not indigenous, but was born in Winnipeg, and I have been privileged to take care of children and adults of the Cree Nation in Northern Ontario for years, including unilingual Cree speaking elders who live a traditional life, fishing, whaling and hunting in the James Bay villages/reserves such as Kashechewan, Moosonee, Moose Factory,etc. as well as urban dwellers in Kapuskasing for example. I too repeated my first year, but pulled up my socks and persevered. I am truly impressed by your accomplishments.
    You have my heartiest congratulations and best wishes. Sincerely, Keith Meloff MD FRCPC (Pediatrics and Neurology) Toronto.

  4. Tammy ruan

    Hello I just met you on a flight from Timmons to Toronto. Congrats on this prestigious award. You are certainly a remarkable woman with so much knowledge, spirt and heart for indigenous people. And it is wonderful that your daughter is following in your footsteps.
    I met to young nurses at the baggage pick up that had just flown back from Attawapiska and I told them I had met you. They were quite envious and where hoping to meet you in person since they had communicated with you virtually in the past year(S) .

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