Heather Fenner is the Nurse Manager for the Ktunaxa Nation. She has been on the front lines of the pandemic since it began. (Submitted file)

Hometown heroes: Ktunaxa Nurse Manager Heather Fenner

With various sectors of the economy continuing to open their doors to the public as part of the second phase of BC’s Restart Plan, many business owners and managers are having to change the way things operate. There are many people working hard behind the scenes to ensure that operations run smoothly, and RN Heather Fenner is no exception.

Fenner works for the social investment sector of Ktunaxa Nation Council as the nurse manager. Since the pandemic began, she has had to adapt the way that her sector operates. Fenner was nominated by a fellow colleague who says that Fenner is deserving of recognition for all of her hard work.

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“Heather has been a very organized, calm, and informed leader for the programs she is leading throughout this pandemic,” said the colleague, who prefers to remain anonymous. “She has extended support to other First Nation communities, yet remains focused on what is important for our own community. She remains professional and present [and] she is not afraid to jump right into the thick of things to help one of our clients. She has prepared us for the worst, but remains hopeful for the best. I have truly appreciated working with her and following her lead – very inspiring to have such a competent, collaborative manager throughout this stressful time.”

Fenner is Metis, originally from northern Alberta and currently residing in Cranbrook. She moved to the area 15 years ago. She is a mom to three teenagers, a wife, and has worked most of her 22-year career in public health with a focus on Indigenous health care.

Fenner has been employed by the Ktunaxa Nation for six years and her work has focused on public health and home health programs, along with clinical support for the health programs of the four nation communities: ʔaq’am, ʔakisq’nuk, Lower Kootenay Band and Tobacco Plains Indian Band.

Fenner explained that she is part of the Ktunaxa Nation emergency operations centre (EOC) working group, along with participating in local, provincial and federal health authority EOC calls that collaborate to meet the needs of the region and Nation citizens.

“Some of the emerging areas that we have been working on [include] bringing COVID testing to the four Nation communities and working with the community health nurses from each community, to make this addition to the services being offered,” said Fenner. “Some of the challenges have been shifting the priority to COVID concerns while meeting the needs of our previous and continued workload as nurses in the community.”

She says it has been a time of adaptation for everyone who works within health care, including the urban programs such as the Ktunaxa Health Clinic, Street Angels, Scotty’s Recovery Program and the Mary Basil Detox. She says her and her staff have had to adapt to changes on the fly and are working hard to make sure that everyone can still be taken care of.

“We quickly moved to providing health care virtually, on-call for symptom assessment and follow-up, community surveillance, and dissemination of accurate information as the situation is ever changing,” Fenner explained. “As the province is preparing to reopen some areas, our Ktunaxa EOC working group has been meeting to draft policies and work place procedures to create safe work spaces for both staff and clients. I am mindful that while we make these preparations, I am also looking to the coming months of planning for the fall and the projections for the [potential] second wave.”

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Fenner says that although it has been a stressful time, being able to adapt to the many changes and utilize the Nation’s resources has resulted in many positive outcomes.

“It has been a time to be creative to meet the needs of our Nation citizens and urban clientele,” said Fenner. “Supporting clients to utilize online healthcare, such as: signing up to Interior Health MyHealth Portal to see lab results after a swab, referring to mental health online tools and access virtual doctor platforms has been a real mind shift for everyone.”

She adds that everyone has pitched in, in one way or another. A Ktunaxa staff member has been able to 3D print face shields for workers and staff is helping with grocery shopping for those who need support. Meal prepping and food distribution has also been a part of their daily routine.

“Street Angel programming has shifted operation to provide outreach and provides 28 meals daily to meet the needs of our vulnerable homeless population in Cranbrook. Scotty’s Recovery and Mary Basil Detox staff offer outreach support, as well as linking clients to allied health services,” said Fenner.

Ktunaxa social workers have also been able to provide support to clients seeking financial aid, along with offering compassion at a time that feels so very uncertain.

“Ktunaxa Nation leadership responded swiftly to the provincial health orders and continues to support employees to stay home, work from home and practice the health precautions,” Fenner said. “There has been so much collaboration between the various governments, health authorities and local businesses within Cranbrook offering to help, guide and provide support. It has been a community response and I am so proud of our collective community efforts to protect our residents during this pandemic response. We are stronger together.”

Fenner says that every single person has a role to play in this pandemic, not just the health care workers, and it’s important to recognize that.

“There has been a lot of showing of support to the essential workers during COVID and I too am so grateful to all who provide care within there roles and to our internal organizational team efforts,” she said. “I also want to give a shout out to those in our community who have also taken it upon themselves to help out their neighbour, check-in on friends and family, provided grocery shopping and prescription pick up for the Elders in our community, and the acts of kindness to connect and help where you can in a time of uncertainty. Our actions impact the lives around us.”


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