British Columbia

'So human': B.C. health officer praised for her compassion after tearing up during COVID-19 briefing

Dr. Bonnie Henry's briefing Saturday was described as a 'masterclass in communicating compassion,' and highlights the physical and emotional tolls of public health work in times of crisis.

Dr. Bonnie Henry says she's heartened by the support as outbreak grows

Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks to the media following an announcement in Victoria on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Dr. Bonnie Henry officially has her own fan club.

B.C.'s provincial health officer has received an outpouring of support online — including a Twitter account dubbed the Dr. Bonnie Henry Fan Club — after fighting back tears at a Saturday press conference, when she announced six new COVID-19 cases and an outbreak at a North Vancouver care centre.

"It's a very difficult time," she admitted to reporters. "I'm feeling for the families and the people that are dealing with this right now."

The moment was a rare and startling glimpse of humanity in a global health crisis that has drummed with sterilized refrains: Wash your hands. Don't touch your face. Stay home if you're sick.

Dr. Henry has largely stuck to those messages as the public face of B.C.'s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, offering daily updates in a soothing, measured voice. 

But on Saturday morning, that composure wavered. Henry paused for more than 20 seconds and became visibly emotional after she asked the public to consider holding virtual gatherings, particularly events with elderly people.

WATCH: Dr. Bonnie Henry fights back tears during a COVID-19 media update

Dr. Bonnie Henry is concerned for families and health workers affected by the coronavirus. 2:11

When asked shortly after about her response, Henry admitted the growing outbreak had taken a toll. 

"I think this is something that I'm very concerned about," she said, noting she had previously experienced the SARS, Ebola and H1N1 pandemics.

"I just know how stressful it is for our healthcare system, for my colleagues, and for the families that are dealing with this."

Many saw Henry's candour and empathy as a sign of leadership.

'I'm not sure my mind really goes off it'

When CBC News repeated those messages of support to Henry on Sunday, she joked that it would make her cry again.

"It actually makes me feel really happy," she said by phone from her home in Victoria. "It's very heartening and I'm very grateful."

Henry said she stays off Twitter as she's accustomed to receiving angry letters.

The outbreak has become a big part of her life, she said, but Henry tries to maintain work-life balance by going for runs and practising yoga.

Still, she admitted, "I'm not sure my mind really goes off it at this point."

Henry has been the public face of B.C.'s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, offering daily updates to the media. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Henry was appointed B.C.'s provincial health officer in February 2018. Before that, she completed stints as a medical director for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and as a medical officer for Toronto Public Health, where she led the operational response to the SARS outbreak. 

She's also worked abroad, helping efforts to eradicate polio in Pakistan and combat the Ebola outbreak in Uganda.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Henry is uniquely qualified to handle the outbreak, with the ability to convey complicated health information in a clear way that doesn't talk down to people.

"She feels it. She doesn't just think it," he said. "I think that just reflects the kind of person she is. I can't tell you the high regard I hold her in."

'You're being put on the spot every minute'

Henry's response also highlights the physical and emotional tolls of public health work in times of crisis, said Josh Greenberg, a professor of communication at Carleton University who studies public health responses in the media.

"Her composure and demonstration of empathy was remarkable," he wrote in an email.

"What we saw here is someone who genuinely feels for the patients and public she serves. It was a masterclass in how to communicate compassion because it appeared so natural and so human."

John Blatherwick, who served as the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health for 23 years, said he has seen the demands of the job evolve over time from when he managed Vancouver's response to SARS in 2003. 

"It's a 24/7 thing for a person like Bonnie and the rest of her team," said Blatherwick, who retired in 2007.

"You're under pressure to give answers immediately. You're being put on the spot every minute of every day."

How do public health officials maintain their own lives during outbreaks? "You don't have a personal life," Blatherwick said.

But amidst the uncertainty of a growing outbreak, Henry tries to appreciate the fleeting moments of calm.

"I'm looking out my window right now and I have beautiful pink cherry blossoms on the tree," she said.

"So I try to make sure that I take that time to just breathe." 

About the Author

Alex Migdal

Journalist

Alex Migdal is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He's previously reported for The Globe and Mail, Guelph Mercury and Edmonton Journal. You can reach him at alex.migdal@cbc.ca.

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