Darla Contois woke up one morning and her left side was completely numb.
The 18-year-old actor and writer from a remote community in northern Manitoba said when she shook her own hand, it felt like a stranger’s.
She continued her morning routine thinking it would pass, until her mother, Crystal Cook, asked her to smile.
She couldn’t smile, and her numbness was increasing.
Alarmed, the pair went to the Garden Hill nursing station where she was told not to worry, it was just Bell’s Palsy, a medical condition where muscle control on one side of the face is lost. The condition usually goes away on its own after a couple of weeks.
But at a follow-up, she was told by a city doctor she was anaemic.
That was until a CAT scan six years later for an unrelated incident revealed she’d had a stroke.
Ironically, suffering a stroke at such a young age may have been fortunate.
“I’m very lucky because the stroke that I had when I was 18 because I had it when I was so young means that my brain was sort of able to regenerate itself a little bit better than it would have if I was older,” she said. “So there are no effects from the stroke.”
She said this is normal health care for her family in the north.
Her grandparents had to move to the city from Misipawistik Cree Nation to get adequate care for their diabetes, and an uncle wasn’t so fortunate.
“My uncle actually passed away because he went to the nursing station with chest pains and they sent him home. On the way home he had a heart attack and passed away,” she said, adding It was a devastating loss for her.
She has since learned she has a congenital heart disorder that needs surgery.
“It’s very nerve-wracking. Like I never thought at 25 years old, I’d have to have heart surgery,” she said.
She wonders what would have happened if she had remained unaware of the condition.
She said she has been subject to racism and stereotyping in healthcare. She encountered racist stereotypes.
“Sometimes I feel our communities back home, they’re just used to it. They hear it all the time,” she said. “That’s normal. Whatever. Just let it fall off your back. Doesn’t mean anything.”
Contois said she feels normalizing these stereotypes is detrimental to the community.
“But when this is affecting people’s lives and it’s affecting the way health care professionals do their job, then it’s really hurting us in the end.”
Contois can’t say whether racial stereotyping or just a lack of resources caused the missed diagnosis. But either way, she said, the system needs to improve how it serves remote First Nations.
“I don’t know how to deal with the fact that I had a stroke. And there is like emotional and psychological damage from that,” she said. “And I have a hard time trusting doctors and the health care system now.”