At the age of seven, Bonnie Henry accompanied her family to the hospital where her older sister Lynn had to have her appendix removed. The experience left a lasting impression on B.C.’s future provincial health officer.
“That was her first experience of going into the hospital, and in that moment she realized that this is what I want to do: I want to be a doctor,” recalls Lynn Henry, sitting at her sister’s dining room table.
A month or so ago, not many Canadians would have been able to name, let alone recognize, their province’s top public health official. But in the midst of a global pandemic, Henry is one of many health officers across the country who have become household names.
For instance, Henry’s decision to cut her own hair made headlines.
“I did do some of my own tinkering,” joked Henry at a recent news briefing, where she apologized to her hairdresser.
“Obviously she was the person who put the order in place that all salons were closed, so her stylist was quite willing to leave the instructions on the doorstep,” said Lynn, who lives in Toronto but has been staying with her sister in Victoria since before the pandemic began.
“It was quite a hilarious moment for us both to try and figure out the instructions…. I was astonished and amused and slightly dismayed by how viral it all went.”
While the spotlight and adulation may be new to Henry, the pressures of a job that impacts thousands of lives is something with which she’s had plenty of experience.
Becoming the top doc
Henry assumed the position of B.C.’s top doctor in February 2018, following the retirement of her colleague Dr. Perry Kendall.
“She’s an example of grace under pressure — of honesty, straightforwardness, empathy and communication,” Kendall said in an interview. “I don’t think I could have done the job as well as she’s doing.”
Kendall said Henry’s background makes her “the right person at the right place at the right time.”
While completing her medical degree at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Henry spent a significant amount of time at sea as a medical officer with the Canadian navy.
She was deployed at the Canadian Forces Base in Esquimalt, on Vancouver Island.
WATCH | Henry talks about why she chose epidemiology as a field of study
“She qualified in diving, as a flight surgeon, and was the only physician in the Canadian fleet at one time on a warship,” said Kendall.
“I think it gave her a great sense of command, control and a sense of presence. And also the ability to give orders and to recognize how you do need to get organized in emergency situations.”
A global outreach
Following her time with the military, Henry navigated through a number of urgent global health initiatives in the span of just three years.
In 2000, she worked with the World Health Organization and UNICEF on a polio eradication program in Pakistan. The following year, she went to Gulu, Uganda, to help combat an Ebola outbreak.
She credits those experiences with preparing her for the complexities of a global response that a pandemic like COVID-19 has required.
“Having those international connections really helps you understand some of the back story of what’s happening in different countries,” Henry said in an interview. “That’s been very helpful for us here in Canada.”
On the front lines of SARS
The 2002-2003 SARS epidemic is believed to have killed 774 people globally, including 44 in Canada, most of them in Toronto. Henry was on the front lines of that outbreak.
As an associate medical officer with Toronto Public Health, she worked closely with the late Dr. Sheela Basrur, the city’s first chief medical officer of health, on an epidemiological investigation of the disease and its spread across the city.
WATCH | Henry talks about the lingering impact of the SARS outbreak in Toronto
“What stays with me from SARS was I talked to every single one of the families who had people who died from SARS and I knew the impact that the disease had on them,” said Henry.
“That really drove some of the reasons why I’ve been so passionate about protecting people’s privacy, about ensuring that we do everything we can for health care workers.”
The ballad of Bonnie Henry
Hamish Telford, professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley, says that’s understandable given the non-partisan role she plays.
“She steps forward and gives us her expertise without political spin,” he said. “And it just so happens that she has a lovely personality and disposition and an extremely reassuring voice.”
Even so, he says, it’s important to remember that people are not infallible.
“We’ve seen her advice evolve over time… We have to be prepared for that — that she will possibly make mistakes.”
For Henry, an outbreak on a global scale comes with the acknowledgment that there is only so much under her control. And while there’s no timeline in sight for a world without COVID-19, she says her inspiration has come from the public.
“Every day when I walk home and I watch people lining up to the grocery store, [I see] most people are patient and they’re working it through and they’re working it out. That’s what allows me to sleep.”
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