Well on her way to becoming the first female Cree medical doctor, Darlene Kitty is a true inspiration to everyone in Eeyou Istchee.
At this point, Kitty is slated to graduate in 2004 from the Family Medicine Residency Program at the University of Sudbury, but has just accepted a third-year position for extra training in Emergency Medicine through the same program. This extra training will go a long way in learning how to deal with the reality of northern towns like Chisasibi – her hometown.
Kitty has had to deal with her fair share of adversity over the years, the most heart-wrenching of which was the sudden loss of her twin sister. “She had collapsed at my parent’s home and was brought to the hospital, and they tried to send her to Sudbury to get care there but she was deteriorating, so by the time they got her on the plane to get her there, it was too late.” Because of the lack of oxygen to her brain, her sister was clinically brain-dead by the time they got her to the hospital. Kitty and her family had to make the decision to turn off the ventilator. “That was such a sudden thing and it was very difficult at the time,” Kitty recalls. “I was totally shocked of course, and I thought to myself, ‘Life is so short, it can be taken away from you in an instant.’
This tragic incident is what changed her focus, and helped inspire her to become a doctor. “I was finishing my nursing degree that following spring and I decided that this is it, I have to do medicine because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and if I ever died tomorrow, I don’t want to regret not having tried to get into medical school. So it had a profound effect on my ambition. When I talk to kids about becoming a doctor, I always tell them about that story because I hope it demonstrates to them how difficult life can be and the many different circumstances that people go through. There are personal struggles that we can overcome, and still achieve our dreams; if we use those difficulties to make us stronger.”
Kitty says nursing has been a great experience for her. The profession taught her a lot about people, their illnesses and their struggles through cancer and with death. “Positive things, like having babies, are even more profound in that sense because you have the privilege of going through those experiences with the patients,” she says.
The transition in becoming a doctor has been made much easier with her easy-going attitude. “I’ve always been interested in working with people, and I’m quite sociable in terms of activities that I do. Going out and participating in sports or getting involved with things at school, certain clubs or organizations.”
Kitty has been known to play a little hockey now and again, having competed on a team in medical school called the Traumatically Hip. Although she doesn’t have much time to play many games, activities like these are what make her feel part of the fold.
Kitty didn’t need to look any further than her own backyard for a role model growing up. Her role models were the two people who shaped what she is today, and were there for her when she needed them: her parents. “They grew up in difficult circumstances, growing up in the bush,” Kitty explains. “They wanted to raise the four of us (girls) with a good education, unfortunately that meant living away from them, but they encouraged me to go to university, and although I think they wanted me to come back up north sooner, I wanted to study and they understood. And now they’re very happy and proud that I’ve become a doctor.”
In her struggles to get into medical school she met who would be another important role model, Dr. John Big Canoe. “He always encouraged me in everything I did, especially when applying to medical school. I always remember what he told me, and I couldn’t believe it when I got my letter (of acceptance). When I finally did get accepted it was by three out of the four medical schools I applied to.”
Tragedy struck once again when Dr. Big Canoe passed away in a boating accident. Kitty was shocked, but she eventually came to terms with the loss and soon after found the strength to carry on.
Once she is finished her residency, Kitty hopes to eventually return to Chisasibi to practice medicine. The doctors who work there have to be skilled in many different aspects, from advanced cardiac life support to delivering babies. Getting this extra training will bring Kitty to different places in and around the north, and then in a few years time, back home.
Kitty’s advice for youngsters to succeed is this: “Finding a role model or mentor is important because they could help you stay on track with your goals, and talk you through difficult times like when you’re homesick and you don’t want to study and you want to come home. That was difficult for me, because I was 17 when I left home. I like to tell kids “don’t listen to pessimists because people can tell you you’ll never be anything”, but I didn’t have good marks and I wouldn’t have been able to become a doctor if I listened to that.”
“I like to tell people never give up, you might have a certain idea in your head and you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or even an astronaut. You can do it if you keep trying, even if you fail a course, go back and do it again. You’ll know better, and learn from your mistakes. I failed courses and had to go back and take them, but I refused to give up.”