When Gezina Baehr was in Grade 10, she heard a little nugget of trivia that made her want to be a pharmacist: cough medicine actually works on the brain by inhibiting the impulse to cough.
“Most people think it just coats your throat and because of that you don’t cough anymore,” said the University of Alberta’s first Indigenous graduate to earn the new doctor of pharmacy degree. “I heard that and I thought, ‘That is incredible, I wonder what else medications are doing that we don’t quite understand.'”
That’s the kind of seemingly inconsequential experience in a young person’s life that ends up being the origin story that dreams are built around.
Her underlying catalyst, however, was poverty.
“When I was in high school, my mom was a single mom of four, and there were times when we struggled with money,” said Baehr. “I knew I wanted to get into a field where I was doing something important and that would also give me a sense of security.”
Born in Victoria, Baehr is a member of the Songhees First Nation, located on the southeastern corner of Vancouver Island. She didn’t stay there long because her mom and dad moved to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, where they ran a group home for Inuit youth.
When Baehr was four, her family moved to an acreage outside of Spruce Grove before her sister was born so her mom could have proper access to hospital care. That would set off a series of moves between Calgary and Edmonton about every four years until she started at the U of A.
Baehr went about her business at the U of A with laser precision. Knowing she could bridge her bachelor of science degree into a doctor of pharmacy, she stuffed all of the prerequisite courses into her first year and applied for the faculty’s Indigenous spot, which she described not as a quota but an extra spot for a qualified Indigenous applicant.
Once in, the study of pharmacy was all she thought it would be and more, but she quickly learned that her coming profession is as much about people as it is about science.
“When you’re growing up and you’re in a certain demographic, you don’t see people doing these kinds of things, you don’t really have a lot of Indigenous role modelling for doing these things,” Baehr said.
“I never thought that by getting into pharmacy, I could mix my passion to help people with pharmacy.”
While Baehr didn’t have a health professional to emulate, she had some role models, especially with her two sets of loving grandparents. Her grandfather, Baptiste Harry “Skip” Dick, received an honorary doctorate of education from the University of Victoria in 2015 for his decades of work mentoring and teaching within the Indigenous community.
“My grandparents are some of the most caring and compassionate people I know and serve as inspiration to really give back to my community,” she said.
As well, in her second year, she met Jaris Swidrovich, an Indigenous professor from the University of Saskatchewan, whose focus is on Indigenizing curriculum and educating health-care students about the issues facing Indigenous communities to help them be better practitioners.
“When I heard him talk, a light bulb went off in my head. I could see myself in him. For the first time I could see myself being able to combine all these aspects of my identity, which I never considered before.”
“It really started this kind of journey of advocacy for me,” she said.
Baehr started to educate her classmates on Indigenous issues—not just concerning the comparatively poor health outcomes in Indigenous communities, but also about the context for some of the problems.
In one instance, an infectious disease lecture on tuberculosis briefly mentioned an Edmonton hospital, the Charles Camsell Hospital, created to help Indigenous communities tackle tuberculosis. Baehr said this hospital, and the many like it across Canada, also known as “Indian” or “reserve hospitals,” were found to have sterilized patients without their consent and conducted research on the patients.
“They were really horrible places, and the lecture made it sound like it was simply a hospital made to treat Indigenous patients with tuberculosis,” she said. “It was those kinds of things that would come up, so I would speak up.”
In her third year, Baehr joined the Pharmacy Students’ Association as the community education director, managing initiatives involving pharmacy students talking to students across Edmonton about various health topics, including presentations to encourage incoming students to become pharmacists. Through this initiative, Baehr created a presentation specifically for Indigenous students with hopes of increasing the historically low number of Indigenous pharmacy students.
“Even though I had a lot of my own problems, I still felt really lucky and blessed, and I still knew there were a lot of different people around the country who looked like me, who didn’t have the same situation. I felt very compelled to find a way to give back.”
If Baehr’s time at the U of A had one common theme, it was her relentless discovery of herself, and no year epitomized that exploration more than her fourth, the practicum year.
After a fairly routine stay at a small-town pharmacy, Baehr was placed at the renowned Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury in Ponoka.
“I had always been highly attuned to the suffering of Indigenous people, but at the psych hospital, I encountered so many people from so many backgrounds all suffering in similar ways. It really expanded my empathy for people from all backgrounds.”
“I would say my interest has really expanded to include all vulnerable people who have never had the same opportunities I had, or encountered unfortunate circumstances that can happen to anybody.”
For her next rotation, Baehr worked at Mint Health + Drugs: CMP, an award-winning inner-city pharmacy in Edmonton that works specifically with vulnerable populations.
“The pharmacy, the way it was set up, allowed me to go above and beyond just my pharmacy role,” she said. “There were times I was dealing with medical emergencies. Sometimes I was dealing with food insecurity. Other times, you’re like these patients’ primary care provider.”
It was there that Baehr befriended an elderly Indigenous woman who had endured unimaginable hardships that included loss, abuse and addiction, while leaving her HIV positive.
Baehr remembered asking her straightforward questions about medications, and pretty soon “she trusted me with her mental and emotional health as well, trusting me with her story.”
“It was in those moments where I could see the elders in my community, the stories they have to offer, and this woman put me humbly in a spot as a learner.”
Baehr said those chats also crystallized for her the principle of trauma-informed care as she realized nobody comes to a pharmacy to get their medication without bringing so many more challenges in their life.
“That’s a connection I want to build with all of my patients,” she said. “I believe in holistic care—not just physical care, but emotional, mental and spiritual care.”
“That’s what makes pharmacy really worth it for me.”
Baehr said the COVID-19 pandemic has clouded the near future, but she is eager to put her education to work. With a few years of experience under her belt, she is determined to get a master’s in counselling and perhaps even a Native studies degree to better serve Indigenous and vulnerable populations.
“I really love pharmacy and I went into pharmacy for the drug knowledge, but it’s the people that keep me in the field,” she said. “I really don’t take for granted any of these opportunities or any of the privileges that I’ve been blessed with that put me in this position to be able to help and advocate for people who need it.”