By Mike Foster
The striking similarities between fraternal twins Audrey and Sarah Giles aren’t just skin deep — both have embarked on humanitarian career paths dedicated to improving health in Canada’s north and abroad.
Audrey Giles, a professor at uOttawa’s School of Human Kinetics in the Faculty of Health Sciences, has developed culturally appropriate water and boat safety programs to help reduce drownings in Canada’s north, where drownings range from six to 16 times the national average in any year.
Her twin sister, Sarah Giles, a voluntary clinical lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine, is on her fourth mission with Médecins Sans Frontières. She is providing medical care to refugees on board the MV Aquarius in the Mediterranean and recently made the news after helping to deliver a baby on the rescue ship.
Both loved the water as children and dreamed of becoming synchronized swimmers. There was no club for this near where they grew up in Toronto, but they did both become lifeguards and swimming instructors.
They attribute their similar career choices to early trips through Northern Ontario, an influential geography teacher in junior high school and both working in the North as lifeguards for the Northwest Territories’ aquatics program the summer of 1998.
“When most kids were going to Disney World, we went on road trips through Northern Ontario, including reserves,” Audrey said. “That would be where the pavement ended and you would see dilapidated housing. It made us start to question the very apparent inequity in Canada.”
Their career choices were also influenced by older sister Ceinwen Giles, who had worked in international development in Asia and Africa and now co-directs a charity in the U.K. that supports young adults with cancer.
A friendly competition
According to Audrey, “Sarah and I kind of egged each other on: ‘She’s doing something really cool this summer, I should do something really cool.’ I also look at the scope of my work compared to the scope of Sarah’s work and think, ‘How could I do more?’ I think that life begins outside your comfort zone.”
Sarah agrees that the twins had a bit of a friendly competition.
“We were constantly compared in our youth and that seemed to turn everything into a competition — sometimes that was good and sometimes it really wasn’t,” Sarah wrote in an email from the MV Aquarius. “It’s hard not to be jealous when your twin sister is lapping you at a track meet!
“We do have a lot in common. We share a passion for social justice. We’re crazy dog lovers, enjoy getting outside and are voracious readers. In general, I think Audrey is a bit more optimistic than I am — she sometimes calls me Dr. Doom and Gloom. On the other hand, I can cope with people describing intense pain and bloody scenes without fainting!”
Audrey and Sarah spend a lot of time apart, but remain extremely close. For the past seven years, Sarah has returned to live with Audrey whenever she is not working abroad with MSF or as a doctor in Northern Canada or Western Australia.
They have also worked at the same time at uOttawa, which has resulted in some confusion — for example, from September to December 2011, when Sarah worked for Health Services.
“Students would walk in and be completely confused,” Sarah wrote. “More than once, I had to reassure a student that anything they said to me was completely confidential and would have no bearing on their mark.”
“We agreed that she wouldn’t mark their essays,” Audrey said, “and I wouldn’t prescribe their medicines.”
First health mission
The sisters’ humanitarian and health missions began in their 20s, when they formed an NGO, Sporting Partnership of Universities and Northern Communities, that collected 4,000 pounds of donated sports equipment for small towns up north.
In 2005, Audrey joined the uOttawa faculty, where her research has focused on Indigenous people, injury prevention and marginalized community members’ participation in sport and leisure activities. She also started the pet therapy program, which brings dogs on campus once a week to help soothe stressed-out students.
In addition to teaching in the Faculty of Medicine, Sarah has been a guest lecturer in Audrey’s course, Health: A Global Perspective.
“The students love to hear her stories,” Audrey said. “Our students want to know how to help people, and when they hear the stories of someone who just got back from Pakistan or South Sudan, it’s really inspiring.”
However, the nature of Sarah’s work does mean a great deal of stress for Audrey.
“South Sudan was pretty crazy. I got a Skype call one day as she was throwing belongings into a backpack and saying, ‘The frontline is falling, the war is coming, we’ve gotta go,’” Audrey said.
“Then I didn’t hear from her for four days. She had to escape to Ethiopia, and that’s when she got really sick, with typhus, dysentery, a kidney stone, invasive campylobacter and C difficile. It is all pretty stressful.”
“I would add,” Sarah wrote, “that I get stressed out for Audrey when grad students are missing their deadlines or creating drama!”
From left: Sarah and Audrey Giles, both “crazy dog lovers.” Audrey started the pet therapy program at uOttawa. Photo: Rohit Saxena