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Nurse who came to Thompson from Ukraine inspires many with her work ethic

Trained as a physician in Ukraine, Iryna Zubchenko worked as a health care aid after immigrating to Canada and coming to Thompson, before completing a bachelor of nursing degree at University College of the North.
iryna zubchenko march 2022
Iryna Zubchenko

Iryna Zubchenko, a Thompson resident, was born and raised in the western part of Ukraine in the Lviv region. She moved to Kyiv at the age of 18, after she completed her nursing degree. Then immediately after, she started her medical degree at the National Medical University in Kyiv. She graduated in 2000 and began her residency in internal medicine.

Iryna (who had married in 1999) and her family moved to Thompson in 2014, joining her older brother and his family here. Her husband Iaroslav, a surgeon, had been trying to convince Iryna that they should move their family to North America after having spent some time in Texas. Eventually, after an exploratory visit to her brother in 2012, Iryna agreed to go to Canada. The approval of the Canadian immigration application in 2014 coincided with the occupation by Russia of eastern Ukrainian regions and Crimea, which spurred the move.

Iryna, her husband and two boys, aged 21 and 11, came to Thompson for a visit prior to moving here and during that visit they decided that Thompson would indeed be their next home. Where some people see isolation, Iryna saw the quiet beauty of the north. Where some people see a long, boring highway (#6) in ill repair, Iryna was fascinated that such sparsely populated land would even have a paved road that stretched out for more than 700 km. And where some people might see limited opportunities working in a small, northern hospital, Iryna saw job security and a chance to start again in a new city and in a new country. Iryna says to this day, she can still remember the first impression she got, seeing the asphalt in the middle of the remote taiga (boreal) forest when she got out of the car along Highway 6 that summer.  

Despite them both being qualified and experienced physicians, Iryna and Iaroslav took jobs as health care aides. For those who don’t know, a health care aide is an integral part of the health care team.  They provide hands-on care to assist people with dressing/toileting/bathing/feeding and many other duties, too many to mention here. Iryna’s husband was hired eventually at Thompson General Hospital and she at the Northern Spirit Manor. That’s around the time that I met Iryna as I had the pleasure of working there with her. If you looked up in the dictionary, words such as diligent, conscientious, virtuous, you might see Iryna’s face there. Myself and other coworkers were blown away by her work ethic and her caring attitude towards the elders she cared for there.  

To come from another country, halfway around the world, start a new job and speak English as a second language is a feat in itself. There’s no denying that. But then to do the job of a health care aide when you are actually a qualified physician and be so humble about it, that’s admirable. Iryna never let on that she was a physician and very few people knew in the beginning. I certainly didn’t. I just knew that we were so lucky to have her working there as a HCA. She says “I just tried to treat them all as though they were my own family, fathers or grandmas or grandpas.” I could go on and on about the quality of care Iryna provided to the elders, but let’s just say Iryna’s work ethic didn’t go unnoticed by anyone.

I asked Iryna what that was like for her and her husband to take jobs they were clearly overqualified for and she stated, “We knew we had to start from scratch with jobs and it might take up to six years to get on our feet.” In true Iryna character, she goes on to humbly say they were just grateful to have jobs which provided them with the money and the resources to live.  

Iryna and Iaroslav both hoped to obtain their Canadian medical licences and work here as physicians but the process involved so many hoops to jump through. At times, it seemed the roadblocks weren’t movable and so Iryna decided to get her nursing degree instead (even though she was already a qualified nurse and physician in Ukraine). She started the bachelor of nursing program at age 38 at University College of the North and graduated after four more years of university. It should be mentioned she worked full-time hours as a HCA at the same time as she was getting her nursing degree. Not a lot of people would have that kind of determination but Iryna says starting another degree at UCN for nursing was “sort of a light at the end of the tunnel.” She is currently working in the emergency department and loving it. Her husband, a qualified surgeon, currently works as a clinical assistant at TGH and enjoys his job there. In order to work as a surgeon in Manitoba, he would have needed to return to Ukraine to work for an extended length of time, which he was not prepared to do. 

Their younger son is graduating this year from R.D, Parker Collegiate and their older son is at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg pursuing a bachelor of science (despite finishing a degree in medicine in Ukraine as well). Iryna still stands by her decision to move to Thompson and says she is grateful for the life they have here. 

I wrote the introduction to my story on Iryna before actually sitting down to meet with her. I figured that because I knew a little bit about her and had worked with her, I had an idea of how this story would start. What I didn’t take into consideration were her feelings about the current war which Russia started on Feb. 24 in Ukraine.

When we sat down to chat and start her story, I asked, “How are you?” and her emotions and the heaviness she carried said it all. Iryna’s heart aches for her home country where so many of her family members still live. She describes a feeling of emptiness inside over the senseless brutality that is taking place. Yet she knows she needs to stay strong. She worries 24/7 about the safety of her father, her middle brother, her in-laws, and various aunts, uncles and cousins who are still in Ukraine. She is concerned not only for family and close friends, but for the country she describes as “her soul, her spirit and her motherland”.

Iryna wants others to know the Ukrainian people are “hard-working people … we have values, family, religion and are fighting to keep our values and freedom.”  

Support for Ukraine in the form of donations (receipts available for tax purposes) can be made at www.cufoundation.ca.

Carla Antichow, who lives in Thompson, is a nurse, a mother to three teenagers and most recently a devoted “grandma” to a six-month-old golden retriever.