Trailblazing doctor wins national Indspire Award

AS ONE OF THE FIRST female Indigenous physicians to earn a medical degree at the U of M, Marlyn Cook [MD/87] is accustomed to paving her own way.

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

The doctor from Misipawistik Cree Nation in northern Manitoba was honoured with a 2019 national Indspire Award for her dedication to providing care on reserve lands and her advocacy work to reshape medicine in First Nations communities.

Representing the highest honour the Indigenous community bestows upon its own achievers, the Indspire Awards recognize Indigenous professionals and youth who demonstrate outstanding career achievement, promote self-esteem and pride for Indigenous communities, and provide outstanding role models for Indigenous youth.

Cook says she has come full circle by practising as a family physician with Ongomiizwin, the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.

She recalls feeling frustrated when she entered the health-care field as a nurse in 1975 and saw how Indigenous patients were treated.

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

When the U of M launched a program to recruit Indigenous medical students, “I was accepted within the first intake and because of my background as a nurse, was voted ‘most likely to succeed,’” Cook remembers.

But despite that strong foundation, the words of a tutor hindered her own belief in her abilities and nearly stopped her from graduating.

“I was told that the rest of the students accepted me, but didn’t think I was going to
“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.”
Trailblazing doctor wins national Indspire Award 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.”

When it came to her residency, Cook diversified her training so she would be prepared to serve as the only doctor in isolated fly-in communities.

She also began to look outside her medical training for knowledge of traditional healing. Today, her practice weaves together Western and traditional practices to ensure that the body, mind and spirit of each patient are cared for.

In medical school, she says, “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. 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 family’s suffering cemented Cook’s belief that traditional therapies are needed to intervene in 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.”

Cook is part of a clinical-care transformation team that is looking at ways to incorporate traditional healing into Manitoba’s health-care system.

This academic year, she spoke to first-year medical students about the need to integrate traditional healing approaches into care for First Nations patients. That class of future physicians includes her daughter, Ashley Monture [BA/18].

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