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Review

Front Lines: Portraits of Caregivers in Northern British Columbia

By Sarah de Leeuw

November 4, 2013

Review By Pamela Ratner

“I always seem to get inspiration and renewed vitality by contact with this great novel land of yours….”[1] So said Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Vice President Richard Nixon, in June 1954, at a British Embassy dinner in Washington, DC. Churchill, although describing the USA, could readily have said this about northern British Columbia, had he had the opportunity to read the essays and see the photographs included in Front Lines: Portraits of Caregivers in Northern British Columbia. The impressions gained from an initial, cursory inspection of the book are of a dynamic, hardy, and diverse people committed to enjoying the physicality of the northern landscape. Close examination reveals the portraits to be accounts of healthcare professionals who work and live, with great passion, in British Columbia’s north. They are about people who are unreservedly committed to the belief that human health and wellbeing are inextricably linked to the wellbeing of the earth.

Author Sarah de Leeuw’s background in cultural historical geography and her roots in northern British Columbia are reflected in her pithy yet rich accounts of 44 nurses, physicians, traditional healers, midwives, social workers, opticians, and pharmacists. These health professionals’ noble work, complicated by a rugged geography, harsh climate, and the adverse effects of colonialism, racism, and poverty, is filled with problems and obstacles. Yet, de Leeuw manages to convince the reader that these people have transcended the complications of providing health care in the north, and have found happiness and a sense of wellbeing as they care for others. Indeed, the essays are not exclusively about their professional lives, but rather an attempt to relate and celebrate their lives, fully integrated, into their social and physical environments.

Tim Swanky’s joyful photographs capture the healthcare providers outside of their professional work; they are seen playing musical instruments, swimming, cycling, dancing, fishing — engaged in life’s pursuits. By avoiding the fixed-pose image, Swanky has managed to represent his subjects bursting with exuberance and hope — he has captured their world of beauty and fun.

Holism is conceptualized by many health professionals as the consideration of the complete person — physically, psychologically, existentially, culturally, and socially. de Leeuw has succeeded in demonstrating that the healthcare providers she has profiled are sensitive to the idea of holism, and know, in all of their expressed humility, that all aspects of their world influence their, and their patients’, health and wellbeing. These compelling, adroitly written essays and accompanying photographs situate these people squarely in the north, within healthcare service, and within their families and communities. Several of the accounts are of people who lived in other communities and countries and who worked in many different occupations before they settled in the north. Their stories are replete with searches for meaning; meaning that they clearly found when they chose to become healthcare providers and to put down roots in British Columbia’s north. These are people who know how to live in ways that matter. There are no glum profiles of overworked, stressed healthcare professionals struggling with resource shortages, poor coordination of services, and limited technological infrastructure. This somewhat unbalanced exposition may not tell the whole story; nonetheless, there are life lessons here for us all.


[1] Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), 158.

 

Front Lines: Portraits of Caregivers in Northern British Columbia
By Sarah de Leeuw, photos by Tim Swanky 
Smithers: Creekstone Press, 2011. 104 pp, $32.00 cloth