Getting even basic medical care in the Yukon can often be a challenge, but accessing gender-affirming care has traditionally been a medical, psychological and bureaucratic gauntlet all its own.
No matter how well-intentioned, the people who control access to this care often lack the proper training, life experience or even empathy to be qualified to care for trans, non-binary or two-spirit folk. As a community, this can make it hard to know who to trust.
In the Yukon, though, there’s a name that gets passed around and recommended over and over again — Michelle Wolsky.
A nurse practitioner working out of the Yukon Sexual Health Clinic, Wolsky is the person you can trust to help get you the care you need and treat you like a human being.
She first came north in 1999 as a nursing student, when there weren’t a lot of job openings for nurses. But Wolsky was offered a term position at the Whitehorse General Hospital, where she worked in critical care before transitioning out into the communities.
“Like everybody else in the Yukon, the rest is history,” she says. “I didn't leave.”
In 2007, she went back to school and got her certification as a nurse practitioner. In 2014, Wolsky was hired as the first nurse practitioner in charge of the new Yukon Sexual Health Clinic, a job which also includes managing the Women’s MidLife Clinic. She worked by herself for a year, but demand at the clinic was “so overwhelming,” says Wolsky, that the government funded a second position within a year. After that, she kind of “just stumbled” into being a trans health care provider.
A seven-year-old patient had just started transitioning but their family doctor had no experience in the process. The family approached the Yukon Medical Association looking for more competent care, but there wasn’t any capacity at the time, says Wolsky. So they approached the Sexual Health Clinic and asked Wolsky if she’d be interested in taking on the case.
It kickstarted her learning journey, she says.
“That was the start of realizing [that] I don’t know what I don’t know. I needed more. I needed to learn more.”
Ever since Wolsky says she’s been continuously trying to improve her education around trans health care. She began by doing more coursework, even bringing up some specialists for extra community training, and she received her World Professional Association for Transgender Health certification in childhood, youth and adolescent care.
“In the beginning of my journey, I really wanted to take ownership of the idea that I don’t want my patients to be my teachers,” she says. “As [the clinic] has evolved, and there's been more complex care [my patients and I] learned together, but I felt strongly that I needed a good, solid foundation of knowledge.”
Historically, the person providing health care has often been a gatekeeper. There’s a power differential that can’t be ignored. Wolsky recognizes there is knowledge she has that her patients don’t. But she also recognizes there are types of knowledge her patients have that she doesn’t possess.
“We can share that [knowledge],” she says, “in a way that honours where everybody's at and doesn't have to reinforce the power differential in an already vulnerable population that has had sometimes not the best experiences accessing care.”
Wolsky says she finds the faith the Yukon trans community places in her to be humbling, and a responsibility she takes incredibly seriously.
“I recognize I have a lot of privilege as a cis-gendered white woman,” she says. “I feel like I have a duty to use my privilege in a way that helps people to access care.”
It’s a lot of pressure. Waitlists are long, and she’s just one person. To unwind, Wolsky spends time with something else she’s deeply passionate about — horses.
“I have a little hobby farm with my horses and my animals,” she says. “I have a lot of animals. For me, my mental wellness and self-care involve riding horses.”
But she also takes inspiration from her patients.
“I like interesting people that are willing to live authentically in their lives and in their bodies and are willing to come and hang out and talk,” she says. “It's fun. We laugh a lot. We learn a lot.”