A Nurse’s Journey

by Deirdre kelly

Matthew Mutamiri (BHS Health Studies ’15, BSCN Nursing ’17) was born only four years after Zimbabwe secured independence from Britain in 1980. He grew up witnessing the chaos that ensued.

After introducing ruinous land reforms aimed at reversing decades of colonial rule, Zimbabwe’s then-President Robert Mugabe destabilized the country’s economy and plunged the people into unremitting poverty. Life expectancy in the Southern African nation is now among the shortest in the world. The average person in Zimbabwe is not expected to live past 60, according to a recent United Nations report. HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases often go unchecked due to a dearth of resources.

But Mutamiri is one of the luckier ones.

He worked hard and did well at school, rising above his ailing nation’s particular difficulties. Advancing to university, he took a bachelor’s degree in science with a focus on public administration. He had wanted to use his education to promote the development of Zimbabwe. “But the situation was so untenable,” he says, “and I eventually had to leave.”

In pursuit of a better life with his wife, Josephine Mukwaira (BHS Health Studies ’14, BHS Health Informatics ’15), Mutamiri immigrated to Canada in 2010, settling in Niagara Falls, Ont. Despite having changed countries, his ambition to help others remained as strong as before.

In 2012, he enrolled at York University to take a degree in health policy. In 2015, during the final year of the honour’s program, he sat in on an information session for the University’s nursing program. It had a profound impact. In Zimbabwe, Mutamiri had often seen people with poor mental health cast out onto the streets, shunned due to ignorance, fear and a general lack of public health care. The memory goaded him to switch directions and take yet another degree at York. “I decided I wanted to become a nurse,” he says. “I wanted to work with the mentally ill to address social inequality.”

Today a registered mental health nurse at Brantford General Hospital, an affiliate of the Brant Community Healthcare System in Paris, Ont., Mutamiri builds on the compassionate approach to medical intervention he learned while a student at York. An internship at the mental health unit of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, a key component of his nursing studies, taught him the soft skills he now employs every day in his practice. “I really enjoyed the way they humanized the care, and I enjoyed interacting with the patients,” he says. “Mental illness is not them. It is something they might have. It doesn’t define them.”

Yet treating their illness does pose challenges, even more so during a global health crisis. As a result of the pandemic, Mutamiri has seen an uptick in patients with mental health problems, especially those suffering from delusions. “For people who already had this disorder, COVID-19 has not helped them, with its conspiracy theories and mistrust of scientific information,” he says. “It’s hard to have patients who think the system is working against them.”

Just like in Zimbabwe, here in Canada many with mental health issues end up on the street. As part of the PhD program he began in September, Mutamiri will investigate homelessness and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic to help the vulnerable living on the fringes in Toronto.

“But I will not study these people as specimens in a lab,” says the father of three young boys. “I will work directly with them to do the research they deem important for treating their mental health. The main thrust will be how we can improve the situation.” It’s a question he’s been a long time asking.  ■