Dr. Shannon Waters (DW): I actually had gone down to Yellowstone National Park with a bunch of my family for a family reunion and I was driving back to BC with an aunt and uncle of mine. And my uncle who was a man who doesn't say a whole lot but on one particular evening after dinner he said to me, “You know Shannon, you're smart. You could be a doctor.”
Science World (SW): Uncles! Pulling through with those avuncular words of encouragement. That young girl did become a doctor. In fact, she became the doctor who led her home territory on Vancouver Island through the COVID-19 pandemic. But we'll get to that in a moment. First, let's hear about the time she knew she’d made the right decision to become Dr. Shannon Waters. It happened early in her education as a student on rotation at St. Paul’s Hospital.
DW: There was this individual who had what we call “fever of unknown origin” and it was an interesting opportunity, my resident training physician said, because there was many tests this individual was going to undertake to try and figure out where this fever was coming from. So there was scans and blood tests and bone biopsies. And then at the end I was very disappointed and sad in a way because we did not find out a definitive reason why this individual had this fever. And he was being discharged home and I was sitting with him and his wife and just saying, “You know, I'm really sorry that we couldn't do more.” And him and his wife said, “You know, you've done a lot. Like, you were with us through this experience and we knew there might be a chance we didn't find the definitive answer but, you know, having someone with us while we've been going through this has made this, you know, still a healing experience.”
SW: And this healing in the face of the unknown or alongside uncertainty has become a hallmark of how Shannon practices medicine.
DW: In a lot of realms of science, we have a lot of tools to find answers, but we don't always find them. Or what we think we might find. And that we can still, you know, work with others, be with other humans and basically help each other through difficult times.
SW: As a Medical Health Officer, Dr. Waters is helping the Cowichan Valley through a number of concurrent difficult times, including the opioid crisis, the health impacts of environmental disruption and the COVID-19 pandemic.
DW: If you had told me before I came into this role that there would be a pandemic, I would've been like, “Oh my gosh, what am I thinking?” But one of my traditional teachings is, you know, spirit doesn't give us anything we're not ready for. I'm a Hul'qumi'num woman, Coast Salish from Stz’uminus First Nation with a lot of family ties to Cowichan tribes on my mother's side and Swedish, Hungarian, and Scottish on my father's side. And it is an honor and a privilege and a challenge to have this role within my home territory.
SW: Early in the pandemic, First Nations people on Vancouver Island were representing 70% the overall cases of COVID-19. But by March 2021, all 50 First Nations communities on Vancouver Island had received the vaccine. Shannon says there is a lot to learn from the Indigenous communities who lead this effort.
DW: We draw on our traditional teachings of helping one another. We know that we will all go through difficult times, we are collectively going through a difficult time right now, but certain populations may be more or less affected at certain times. And also in a lot of cases we have had very good vaccine uptake overall not just for COVID as Indigenous communities because we see this as something we do for our loved ones and our communities as much as we do for ourselves. Indigenous health systems have existed for generations upon generations, and I am one person at one point within that time spectrum and I have the privilege and challenge of being a physician. And I only got here because of all the people who came before me, my ancestors, all those people who had intimate knowledge and relationships with the places they lived and looked and observed and supported the health of themselves and the other beings in their environment over that timeframe.