Métis Doctor Sarah Sibbeston: Healing Patients and Systemic Underrepresentation
“You go up to Yellowknife and there's not really any Indigenous doctors there. The representation is not there yet. They have a lot of work to do. They don't make it easy but they are making it more accessible,” shares Sarah Sibbeston. She is a Métis woman from Yellowknife who grew up around Fort Simpson and seeing Indigenous people from up north getting into medicine excites her.
After moving around down South, she ended up in Yellowknife for ten to fifteen years. In high school, she wasn't sure exactly what she wanted except that she excelled in biology and chemistry. Recognizing her skills in science, she went into a biomedical science degree at the University of Ottawa, which she completed in 2019. Sibbeston was accepted into medical school that fall and is now just six months away from becoming an MD. When that phase of her training is done, she has a five-year residency.
During residency, you work as a doctor, getting paid and having access to benefits, and it can last from two to seven years depending on the speciality you choose. Sibbeston is hoping to go into surgery, either general or Obstetrics and Gynecology. It’s a long road, but it’s worth it to her to realize her dream.
She came to this work by chasing what she was good at. She worked as hard as she could, got good grades and realized she could likely get into medical school. Sibbeston decided to give it a try and she was accepted. Canadian medical schools require completion of four year degrees and you can get in with any undergraduate degree. The majority of her classmates completed science degrees but some of the people she knows in medicine were previously journalists or nurses. “There's definitely a lot of different paths that can lead to medicine,” she explains.
Leaving home to study wasn’t easy and Sibbeston points out it’s not an option everyone has. She was lucky to have connections in her new town, with grandparents living there and friends from home who were continuing into university with her. Sibbeston is thankful she wasn’t alone.
“My best friend and I applied together to go to UOttawa so we did the whole thing together. That made it a lot less lonely, I found. But I mean, that it's not always that easy. You can't really choose where they will accept you. But most Canadian universities anyway will have good resources, especially for Indigenous students,” Sibbeston elaborates. From bannock and tea afternoons and elders to talk to, there are lots of opportunities to get help on campus. Surrounded by new people all the time, there are many opportunities to make new friends.
“Medical school in and of itself is very daunting.”
From writing the MCAT to the costs of going to school, there are a lot of challenges. Many of Sibbeston’s peers didn’t have to work over the summer and could afford to attend prep courses, but she could not. She didn’t have the money and she had to work to support herself.
“Now that I'm here, med school is hard. It's definitely not an easy career choice. But it comes in waves. Sometimes it's a lot and you're really busy and stressed all the time,” she reports. Other times, like school breaks, there are opportunities to rest and sleep. Without the benefit of the traditional medical background with parents who are doctors or lawyers, she faced more barriers than some of her peers.
To help overcome some of those barriers, there are opportunities at her school, like free tutoring for the MCAT exam. “I find the Canadian universities, especially out west, are getting really good at supporting rural and Indigenous applicants and making it more equitable that way,” she explains.
If she could go back in time and share a message with her younger self it would be to believe in herself a little bit more. “I always felt like I was reaching a little bit too far beyond my capacity, especially with medicine. It's notoriously difficult, and even when you get into whatever program, sometimes you feel like you don't belong there, you get overwhelmed and you feel like they made a mistake accepting me,” she recounts. “I would just tell myself to stop worrying so much and just believe in the hard work I had done and believe in myself,” she continues.
Over the course of her studies, Sibbeston has learned that a big part of medicine is finding ways to balance yourself. “It's very, very, very easy to just lose yourself in work and just go until you can't go anymore. I've been getting better at taking more time to just settle down,” she relays. Instead of studying all night, she takes the dog for a walk and watches some guilt-free TV. When she wants to be productive while procrastinating, she chooses to bake.
One of the reasons she loves going to med school in Edmonton is that they get a lot of patients from the North. They see her Northwest Territories pin on her hospital ID and there’s an instant common ground. “It's nice having those little connections and being able to sit and chat with someone who's in the hospital in a strange city. No one's ever really happy to be admitted to a hospital,” she recounts. Being able to brighten someone’s day when they know someone understands where they are coming from is important to her and one of the reasons she hopes to match to a residency in Edmonton moving forward.
Her advice to youth considering a career in medicine is encouraging. “If anyone out there has even the slightest inkling that that might be something they want, just 100% go for it, work hard, get the grades, get into an undergrad and if your path takes you to medicine, it's hard work, but at the end of the day, it's really rewarding and it's worth it,” she advises.
Knowing that when you go up to Yellowknife, there's not really any Indigenous doctors there and that the representation is not there yet, Sarah Sibbeston is excited to be part of the change she wants to see in the world. There’s a lot of work to do, and while it’s not easy to rise above the challenges of entering medicine as a Metis woman from Yellowknife, being an Indigenous person from up north who got into medicine excites her. Wearing a coat as white as the snow back home, she gets to help heal patients and the chronic underrepresentation of her people in the healthcare system.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.