Paula Vaters was six years old when her father, Dave Galway, opened Kelway’s Pharmacy in Gander, Newfoundland.
“I can’t remember anything else except being in a drug store after school and on the weekends,” said Vaters, who came to Rankin Inlet in 2019 to work as the pharmacy manager at the Northern Store.
Her career began at age 11 for her father and she’s worked in a pharmacy ever since. In August, she worked her last day in Rankin Inlet, marking the first time she would be unemployed since she was a child.
Vaters’s farewell message on social media received an outpouring of sadness and love from community members who came to appreciate her work, more than she expected.
“There’s a few times that I have had people look me right in the eye and tell me how much they love me,” said Vaters about her time in Rankin Inlet. “And I have extended family members that don’t do that.”
When some of her clients found out she was leaving, they made sure to hug her goodbye — “people I never expected would even blink that I was gone,” remarked Vaters, who was touched by how genuine and caring residents were toward her.
She didn’t quite know what to expect coming to Rankin Inlet from Newfoundland in 2019, but she did know she needed a change, as her passion for pharmacy had lost its lustre from the rampant opioid crisis in the south.
“I wanted a change in my career,” she said. “Newfoundland, along with the rest of the country, there’s a major opioid epidemic. And it’s big in Newfoundland. I was getting tired of serving drug addicts.”
What started as a career geared to helping people had turned into serving drugs that were legally prescribed but clearly fuelling addictions.
“I felt like a drug pusher, because you knew the drug was not being used properly,” she said, adding that there was even the odd robbery or threat.
Her husband, Todd Vaters, had been working six weeks on, two weeks off in Rankin Inlet previously. When Paula saw the pharmacist position open at the Northern, she called and had two questions: what’s the opioid situation like, and have you ever been robbed? Both queries were laughed off.
“There’s no opioid crisis in Nunavut,” said Vaters, who was rejuvenated to go back to her pharmacy roots in providing care for traditional issues like diabetes, asthma and children’s needs.
She felt like she had returned to basics and was thrilled to connect with community members in meeting their needs.
“It’s been really good, because number one, the people are so patient and so friendly, which makes my job a lot easier,” said Vaters, who worked in Rankin Inlet but also served Whale Cove, Naujaat, Coral Harbour and Chesterfield Inlet, making it a busy position.
“You tell (people here) come back in an hour and, ‘OK,’ and they’re gone,” said Vaters.
“Home, you tell someone come back in an hour and they’re ready to kill you. ‘I need it now, I’m more important than the person next to me, I need it first.’ That kind of attitude. You do not get that kind of attitude up here. People are so friendly and they’ve been so nice to me and so patient.”
Whereas clients often wouldn’t even make eye contact in the south, Vaters made personal connections with just about everyone in Rankin Inlet through her role.
“There have been lots of nice experiences up here, too many to name,” she said. “The biggest thing is how much the people touched me.”
So why leave?
“Miss home is the biggest part,” explained Vaters, adding that her parents are at the age where she gets nervous when the phone rings and would like to be closer to them.
As well, serving four communities plus Rankin Inlet had become exhausting and she needed a break.
She, her husband and dog left town late August, but haven’t ruled out coming North again. Like others before her, Vaters has become an advocate for southerners to see and experience Nunavut and its people, calling it the experience of a lifetime.
“The people made this the best three-year experience that I could have ever had,” she said.