In January 2016, the town of La Loche, Saskatchewan experienced an unspeakable tragedy – losing four members of its community to gun violence. It was at this crucial time, that Brescia alumna and a newly-graduated Psychiatrist, Dr. Sara Dungavell ’06, was called on to support the mental health of this grieving community. Sara immediately responded to the call and has been travelling weekly to La Loche and other northern communities ever since.
As a practitioner of “socially-accountable medicine”, Sara is a steadfast believer in helping those most in need by thinking outside of the traditional system. For her, this includes utilizing a travelling clinic to bring care directly to individuals within Saskatchewan, which in addition to the northern communities includes: students at the University of Saskatchewan; members of the LGBTQ+ community at OUT Saskatoon and military representatives at a stress injury clinic. A fierce advocate for the marginalized communities of our country, Sara credits Brescia’s Community Development program and supportive atmosphere for amplifying her voice of advocacy.
Why did you choose Brescia for university?
As a high school student, I had originally heard about Brescia through their December 6th National Day of Remembrance candlelight vigil. At the time, I was thrilled that a politically-active place that stands up for women’s issues existed. But, it hadn’t occurred to me that this was a place I could go, until I found out about its scholarship program. With my high school average, I was guaranteed a great scholarship at Brescia and that made the University very appealing.
After learning about the scholarships, I discovered more about Brescia and loved the small and intimate nature of the classes. I felt that Brescia would give me a real chance to engage with the University and be part of the conversation on learning – and not just sitting and getting lost in the crowd of people.
Lastly, I had originally thought I wanted to study Medical Sciences in my undergrad because I ultimately wanted go into Medicine. However, I wasn’t passionate about it. What I was passionate about were people. I cared about what made people tick; what made life worth living and our connections with one another. And, I realized that Brescia would allow me to study all of these things. I believe that if I hadn’t had discovered Brescia, I am not sure I would have had the chance to complete an undergrad in Religious Studies and Community Development, and I know that has made me the Psychiatrist and Doctor I am today.
What path led you to practicing psychiatry?
I had originally gone into Medicine thinking that I would be a family doctor within a small, rural community. But, when I finished my undergrad at Brescia and entered Western’s Medicine program, I knew that the parts of medicine that I really liked were the people parts – not necessarily the science.
However, there was still a huge part of my soul that wanted to be part of a community of health and to provide a service to those in need. At Brescia and Western, I saw how the basic biological model of providing care wasn’t always meeting the needs of a lot of marginalized communities. I also observed that there were a lot of communities that needed access to good medical care, but couldn’t get it in the standard system. It was here that I discovered the concept of socially-accountable medicine and I knew that psychiatry would be the best path for me to pursue this.
In my psychiatric residency at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), I didn’t get much chance to practice this socially-accountable medicine until my shared care rotation – and I immediately fell in love with it. I loved the idea of being able to help people by coming directly to them. So I shifted my focus from child psychiatry and kept my ears open for opportunities within shared-care clinics.
It was while I was completing my residency, that I was approached with some amazing opportunities to practice this medicine that I was so passionate about – beginning with working in the Student Health Centre at the U of S. This opportunity immediately stood out to me, as I wanted to work with students who were at such a formative stage of becoming their best selves. Additionally, when I was on-call during my residency I also noticed that many of the LBGT folk I was coming across felt like they didn’t have a clinic that they felt was safe. So, I approached OutSaskatoon who gave me the opening to set up an LGBT-friendly clinic there one day a week. Although these opportunities were rewarding and were filling a lot of my time, I knew that there was more I could do for my community – this is when I discovered a new veteran’s clinic, who were looking for a psychiatrist. This clinic spoke to me on a personal-level, because I had an uncle, who was a Captain in the army and who died by suicide in 2014. Finally, just before I graduated, I was approached to work within the northern communities of La Ronge and Stony Rapids. As someone who has always believed that the north deserves the same standard of care as those living in the rest of Canada, I knew this was something I had to do.
Before I even started in the role, the La Loche shooting happened. Because of this, I was asked to take on the La Loche clinic early in an effort to send a message and show that we supported the mental health and care of the community. Although I was terrified and didn’t feel ready, I knew that I couldn’t wait to help this community in need. From April 2016 I have been working with the people of La Loche and other northern communities, and although it is challenging work it is incredibly rewarding.
What are some of the learnings that you have been able to take away from your experience at Brescia and apply to your career?
Definitely the importance of advocacy! While studying at Brescia, I had the privilege of seeing strong women take on leadership roles and do their part to advocate for change in our world. Seeing this in action inspired me to also do my part and help better the world.
In addition, learning about the importance of community development and religion from an academic perspective has been an asset in my career. In psychiatry, if we are not dealing with the basic biological illness – which we rarely are – we need to understand the “why?” of a situation. And, this “why?” often comes down to spirituality and understanding what makes life worth living. While not every conversation leads to spirituality, it is wonderful to have the language to have these holistic conversations.
Lastly, I wouldn’t have gone into medicine and had the confidence to run these clinics if I haven’t experienced the healing role of community at Brescia, and the empowering role of women’s-centred spirituality. I came to Brescia as an anxious, unsure high-schooler and Brescia’s warm and supportive environment, showed me what I could become. Without Brescia, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do medical school, complete my psychiatry interviews and then go out on my own and start clinics. Brescia has been a warm home to develop.
To what do you attribute your professional success?
I credit much of where I am today to Brescia’s Community Development program. It challenged me to consider ways to step out of the system that is marginalizing people and to provide care that empowers them. I think that is why these travelling clinics have taken off the way they are.
While studying Medicine at Western, and Psychiatry at the U of S, I observed a number of physicians who practiced travelling clinics and the shared-care model. But, my choice to have an entirely travelling clinic, which is seeking out pockets of people who aren’t having their needs met, is because of Community Development.
What advice would you give to Brescia alumnae and students?
One of my favourite lines is, “God isn’t going to ask you why you aren’t Moses. He is going to ask you why you aren’t you.”
Although I consider myself privileged to have been given so many opportunities throughout my life, I have also made it a priority to embrace who I was over who people wanted me to be. When I graduated, the assumption was to follow a linear path that was outlined to me by my Psychiatry program. However, when I graduated, I declined these traditional jobs and spent the time trying to find clinics that fit me. It would have been very simple for me to graduate and fall into a job that was asked of me. But, I would have been much sadder. Getting to pay attention to who I was, and to what I authentically wanted allowed me to get so much out of life. This is my recommendation to Brescia’s students: pay attention to who you are and what brings you authentic joy and meaning, and find a way to schedule that into your life.
How do you define leadership? Or, what characteristics make a great leader?
I always struggle with the concept of leadership, as I don’t see myself as a traditional leader. I have never like telling people what to do and am a firm believer that people can figure many things out for themselves.
For me, leadership is creating a space that provides quality care for those in need. Leadership is inviting people to join me in a safe space and help me in developing this space even further.
In terms of advocacy, I believe a leader should be loud when they see something wrong, and continue to be loud until they see results. Leadership is about increasing your voice, and being an amplifier for those who may not be noticed.
What are your hopes for Brescia in the next 100 years?
Over the next 100 years, I hope that Brescia can keep making a safe space for all future female leaders to rise and to discover their authentic self, their power and how they can bring much-needed change to our world.
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