CHEO newcomer navigator aids patients, families

November 11, 2017

By CBC News |

A day last January when six Syrian families showed up in CHEO’s emergency department inspired the creation of a brand new job at the children’s hospital.

Suelana Taha, an intake clerk, was on duty when the families arrived with a single anxious settlement worker looking for help. Some of the new patients had cold symptoms while others were vomiting.

Staff also quickly discovered that none of them spoke English.

“The kids looked scared, the parents obviously had a look on their face where they had no idea where they are,” Taha said. “They didn’t know what they were going to expect, and it was just a very different environment for them.”

As the only Arabic speaker on duty, Taha swung into action.

To the newcomers’ amazement, she greeted them in Arabic before beginning the process of having the patients assessed.

At one point, she headed out on an errand to get the families something to eat, forgoing pizza and chips in favour of meat pies from a nearby bakery, which she imagined would be a more familiar meal.

That day in January inspired the hospital to create the position of newcomer navigator, which Taha was tapped to fill.

As navigator, Taha is paged to assist patients arriving in the emergency room, but also follows up with families after their visits, helps arrange interpreters for appointments and connects daily with settlement workers in the community about families and their concerns.

The idea might seem novel but it was a very natural move for CHEO, according to CEO Alex Munter.

“It is our job as an organization to respond to the needs of people that come through the door,” he said, adding that the hospital had also reorganized the emergency room a few years ago in response to a surge in the number of patients arriving in a state of mental health crisis.

“This really is in the same vein, but it had the additional layer of course that this whole community responded with an open heart and a tremendous desire to make these newcomers fell comfortable and feel at home,” Munter said. “And so that was in the air. It was in the air at CHEO as it was throughout our city.”

The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Ottawa are children, Munter said, so a children’s hospital would be expected to respond to that need.

“Coming into the ER with a sick child is scary for anyone,” Munter said. “And if you walk in and you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand how the processes work, that’s even scarier.”

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