PEI

Meet one of the heroes of the pandemic: B.C.'s Dr. Bonnie Henry is from P.E.I.

Dr. Bonnie Henry has become a household name across Canada since the pandemic began — and did you know British Columbia's popular provincial health officer is from P.E.I.? 

'I have family in P.E.I. and they're all feeling very safe'

'I have family in P.E.I. and they're all feeling very safe,' says Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer. (BCCBC)

Dr. Bonnie Henry has become a household name across Canada since the pandemic began — and did you know British Columbia's popular provincial health officer is from P.E.I.? 

Henry grew up on Prince Charles Drive in the Brighton neighbourhood of Charlottetown, and went to medical school at Dalhousie in Halifax. Upon graduation she ended up working for the navy in B.C., deployed at the Canadian Forces Base in Esquimalt, on Vancouver Island. 

"I had a calling for medicine quite early on," she told CBC Radio: Island Morning co-host Mitch Cormier. "My sister tells the story of how she was in hospital as a child and had her appendix out, and I went to visit her and was like 'Ooh, this is what I want to do!'"

We as a global community need to think about the impacts that we have on nature that allow these kinds of viruses to arise.— Dr. Bonnie Henry

She didn't at first consciously choose to become a public health official but said it developed along with her interests. 

While in the military, Henry spent time at sea as a ship's physician and said that led her to consider what health measures would most benefit the whole population on the ship. 

"One of the first things that I now retrospectively realize was a public health action was I was instrumental in banning smoking on board ships — made me the most-hated person on the the dockyard for a while, but I think it was really important," she said. 

Never thought it would come to this

While working in San Diego she became interested in and did her specialty training in infectious diseases, then additional specialty training in public health and preventive medicine. 

Dr. Bonnie Henry during a recent visit back to P.E.I., where many family members live. (Submitted by B.C. Ministry of Health)

In 2000, she worked with the World Health Organization and UNICEF on a polio eradication program in Pakistan. The following year she went to Uganda to help combat an Ebola outbreak.

She has also spent much of the past two decades working nationally and internationally preparing for a flu pandemic, and said some of the scenarios they only imagined before are very similar to public health measures implemented during COVID-19 — like closing schools.

"But I never really thought we would need to be in a position to implement the things that we have," Henry said, noting COVID-19's virulence and transmissibility has made it "a very, very challenging virus to contain." 

No treatment and no vaccine meant no other option but to bring in strict public health measures to keep people away from one another, which she acknowledges has been "very, very hard."

'We can't bring people back'

Henry said it's always tough to announce things like business shutdowns or school closures, but those decisions are balanced by the enormous pressure to prevent situations like the ones in Italy and New York, in which health systems were overwhelmed by the sick and dying and "everybody suffers," she said.

Public health official as street art? An art student paints an image of Dr. Bonnie Henry on a boarded-up window in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"We can find way to support people economically — we can't bring people back if they've had severe illness or they have died," she said. 

Public health officials are still learning from other jurisdictions' successes and failures in dealing with COVID-19 she said. She speaks with the other public heath officers including P.E.I.'s Dr. Heather Morrison every day. Morrison chairs and Henry vice-chairs the Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health.

Henry said a while details may differ among provinces, the officials have been taking common approaches to virus prevention. She said she thinks P.E.I. 's efforts have "gone really well" which is a testament to Morrison and her team.

"I have family in P.E.I. and they're all feeling very safe, and doing their bit and staying home and washing their hands," she said. Her mother, father, sister, niece and nephew live in Charlottetown. "Now is the time when we have to keep holding together, to get through this next phase, to make sure we're not going to get a resurgence of the disease."

'We have this amnesia'

Could the world see another pandemic like this? 

John Fluevog Shoes is releasing a limited edition shoe, inspired by British Columbia’s chief provincial health officer — an avid Fluevogger — Dr. Bonnie Henry. (John Fluevog)

"We as a global community need to think about the impacts that we have on nature that allow these kinds of viruses to arise," she said. "That's a bigger existential question."

Henry said in time, however, it's been her experience that collective memory fades and people begin to relax safety measures such as handwashing or staying away from others while we are sick. 

"We have this amnesia after we get through events like this. This one being such a massive global one, I'm hopeful it will press reset on some of these things," she said. 

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning and Jason D'SOuza

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