From Ghana to Hamilton, pioneering anesthetist leaves her mark
Ama deGraft-Johnson retires after more than three decades in Hamilton hospitals
Ama deGraft-Johnson has practiced anesthesia for more than 30 years in Hamilton, and in September she plans to step away from the hospital work she fought so hard to get into as a young immigrant from Ghana.
She has an infectious laugh and she's quick to break into song to calm patients or to hug a colleague to "feel your energy". She sprinkles little sayings and aphorisms into her conversations, delivering them as if the cliche was thought up just for that moment.
She's held to those sayings when she's faced sexism and racism as one of the very few women, and women of colour, to work as a doctor in Hamilton hospitals in the 1970s and 1980s.
And now, rather than calling her next step "retirement," she says she's making room for a younger person to pour into the work of anesthesia, the passion she's developed through all these years.
'I worked harder than the men'
When deGraft-Johnson came to Hamilton, there were only two doctors who were what she called "visible minorities ladies".
"So we stood out, you know," she said. "We were always confused for each other."
I didn't want to be the reason for the department not hiring another female.- Ama deGraft-Johnson, anesthetist, Hamilton Health Sciences
She didn't just stand out for the colour of her skin. When she joined the staff of anesthetists working in three major Hamilton hospitals in 1982, she knew the team wondered if she'd be able to work as hard as a man.
"When I got hired, I was the only female in a group of 17 men," she said. "Prior to my coming on staff, there hadn't been a female on staff for at least 10 years."
And there wouldn't be another woman hired in anesthesia for 15 more years, she said.
When she got pregnant, she worked up until two weeks before the baby came, covering every call shift, and came back to work three months after the baby was born.
"I worked harder than the men. Much harder than the men," she said. "Because I didn't want to be the reason for the department not hiring another female."
'You have to be ready to run with it'
Before they were married, deGraft-Johnson's husband, now-retired CityTV reporter Jojo Chintoh, moved to Canada first to train in journalism.
She had just finished medical school in Ghana when they married, and she didn't want to move until she had a residency to enter to continue her training. Finally, she came to Toronto in 1973.
She arrived in October. She had never lived in cold weather before.
After a couple of short stints and frustrating waits over the first two years, deGraft-Johnson was about to give up and go back to Ghana to work.
I learned what poverty is when I came to North America.- Ama deGraft-Johnson, anesthetist, Hamilton Health Sciences
But Hamilton offered her a residency spot in 1976.
She had hoped to be a paediatrician, but realized soon she should take whatever chance she could get to practice medicine.
Here's where those phrases come in: "Man proposes; God disposes."
"When the doors close, there's always a window of opportunity. And you have to be ready to take it and run with it."
And, in hindsight, she's not sure she would've been able to convince parents in the 1980s in Hamilton to bring their kids to her practice.
"I still get asked, 'Where did you train?' I still do," she said. "Yes, I've faced a lot of, I will say, bigotry and prejudice. Everybody thinks everyone from Africa is poor and we are blessed to be here. Just because maybe we don't speak the same way, or use the same vernacular. I will say to them, I learned what poverty is when I came to North America."
'I have all my marbles with me'
And deGraft-Johnson got involved in teaching residents and paying forward some of the wisdom she'd picked up in her years of practice.
"I tell my residents, I don't teach knowledge and academia alone; I teach life," she said. "Because life is what it's all about. And if you cannot be there for somebody, then no. We're here not for ourselves, but for somebody else."
deGraft-Johnson's colleagues threw a celebration for her and another retiring colleague Friday night.
"I'm leaving the hospital when I have all my marbles with me," she said. "And I'm also leaving because there are young people coming that don't have jobs. They need the job more than I need the job at this time in my life."
She plans to spend more time with her family, do some traveling and some work in a clinic. She has three daughters, 40, 37 and 31, a social worker, a psychiatry resident and a lawyer, respectively. Her middle daughter is having a baby in June.
Her eight brothers and sisters, all types of professions and training, are spread out across Africa, Europe and North America. She goes home to Ghana every year, and hopes to spend more time with the nieces and nephews she has there, to play the role she has as the matriarch of her family.
"And then, the only thing I want to do ... is go to Israel, and then — I travel quite a bit — do Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia."
It doesn't seem like deGraft-Johnson will be slowing down any time soon.