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Heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic: 2021 Immigrant Women of Inspiration

April 11, 2021

Our eighth annual ‘Immigrant Women of Inspiration’ special shines a spotlight on heroes who have continued to work with courage, confidence and dedication every day of this pandemic, making vital contributions to improving the lives of people in Canada in their own unique ways.
We bring to you four inspiring women from across Canada who have been on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19 and supporting their communities. Here are the inspiring and motivational stories of Dr. Theresa Tam, Jennifer Chen, Claudette Lennard and Vedanshi Vala.

We would like to recognize all nominations we have received this year as for our women of inspiration feature.Without their efforts, we would not be starting to emerge from this challenging situation.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Fierce Public Health Advocate

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, is a household name today. A fierce public health advocate, she has been a key voice in guiding Canadians during this pandemic.

Hong Kong-born Tam moved to the UK with her family when she was in primary school and got her medical license before moving to Canada in the early ’90s. Like all internationally trained medical professionals, Tam went through the re-qualification process and completed her pediatrics residency program at the University of Alberta before pursuing further sub-specialty training as a pediatric infectious diseases fellow at the University of British Columbia. “Inspired and guided by great mentors at the Children’s Hospital of British Columbia, I became interested in vaccines and their critical application in public health,” she says.

Tam entered public health through the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program at Health Canada (now at the Public Health Agency of Canada).

“Some of the happiest moments in my career were out in the field investigating and managing outbreaks of infectious diseases in Canada and internationally.

“It took me a while to say goodbye to my clinical practice, but when the time came to choose, I realized I was much more interested in how the ways we live, work and behave impact our health. I wanted to know how, by changing systems and structures, we could improve health  for everyone. The work satisfaction in public health comes from the prevention of illnesses and promoting the wellbeing of communities rather than treating one patient at a time,” she says.

One of Tam’s goals when she took on the key leadership role as Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer in 2017 was to make good health a possibility for everyone in Canada. “Equity is vital for ensuring health security and preventing future health emergencies. COVID-19 has highlighted the many facets of the pandemic response that are beyond actions of the health sector and that social, economic and other supports are crucial,” says Tam.

Tam encourages newcomers and immigrants to take action and seek support during the pandemic. “… Speak to people you trust in your settlement community or consult your primary care provider – either a family physician, a walk-in clinic, a community health centre, or even a hospital – to learn about the options that are available to support your health and well-being. This help is also available to newcomers,  including refugees. I urge you to get the help you need.”

She talks about the importance of finding ways to stay connected to loved ones in these challenging times and shares innovative ways she connects with her own large family, from virtual concerts to cooking sessions.

“Although we can’t be physically together, we have found ways to stay connected. Music is a big part of my family’s life, so we sometimes have virtual family concerts. We will all play the same music on our own and send the video to one of us who is more technologically adept than I am, to splice it together as if we’re all playing together. It’s quite amazing!

“I am sure many of you have musical families, or artistic families or families who like to cook together. I’m very close with my sister who bakes, and I am not a baker. It’s great to FaceTime with her and see what she’s baking. She sometimes sends me photos of these beautiful desserts which, of course, I wish I could eat. I really encourage you to get together with your families and friends remotely to share what you love doing, together,” says Tam.  Click here for the full profile.

Claudette Lennard | Caring for the community

Early in 2021, Claudette Lennard received a call from Toronto Public Health telling her to isolate because she had been exposed to COVID-19. Immediately, she thought of her family. “I live with someone who is immunocompromised. If I brought the virus into the house it could be devastating.”

One of the Personal Support Workers (PSW) Lennard supervises mistakenly informed officials that she had been exposed. While Lennard had contact with the PSW who tested positive for COVID-19, it was only ever over the phone and not in person. Fortunately, the PSW recovered  from the virus, but during this experience, she found that the phrasing of the questions asked by Public Health confused her. It was a relief for Lennard when she was cleared, but also highlights the challenges faced by PSWs working in the community.

“They don’t get the same attention as health care workers in long-term care, but they’re doing just as much. They may see 10 different clients in a day. They work tremendously hard,” she says.

Lennard knows of what she speaks. April 2021 will mark 30 years of being the supervisor of home support for what was formerly known as West Toronto Support Services (WTSS) and is now Reconnect Community Health Services. Born in Jamaica, Lennard had an early affinity or older adults. “My grandmother was my main caregiver. She was my mom, she was my dad, she was everything. I loved her so much.” At age 13, Lennard was adopted by her stepmother and father in Canada and came to Toronto for a better life.

She graduated high school, but circumstances changed and she moved in with her best friend’s family. She had a child at 17, stayed home for a while, and then took courses to further her education. After a stint as a medical secretary, she landed a job as a transportation assistant at WTSS.

She made arrangements for clients to go grocery shopping or to medical appointments and rode the bus with the driver to assist the clients. That’s when Lennard developed a bond with seniors. She didn’t realize how strong that bond was until one of the clients died. “That special client once said to me ‘people always give flowers to old people. I don’t want flowers, I like it when you talk to me and treat me like I’m a person.’ When she passed, everything changed for me. It put things into perspective,” she says.

When a position in home support opened, Lennard was encouraged to apply. Management soon asked her to step in as supervisor. She has been doing the job ever since and now manages a team ranging from 40 to 50 PSWs, for a clientele that can vary from 300 to 500. She has honest advice for newcomers looking to become a PSW or a nurse.

“It’s a rewarding job and anything you put your mind to you can do it. But do it only if you have that passion to help others. Don’t do it because you think that’s the easiest way to get your status in Canada – get into it and be dedicated,” she says.

Lennard continues to work in the office during the pandemic because she wants to be on call for her PSWs who are out “in the battlefield”. She ensures they’re fully equipped and wearing their protection properly. She acknowledges their fears, encourages them, and highly values what they do. “Things have to change for PSWs. There needs to be more training and better pay, without a doubt,” she says.

When asked if she feels like an everyday hero, Lennard smiles and shakes her head. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Give what you hope to receive. I’m proud of my kids, and I have a great husband. I’m blessed,” she says.
– Carolyn Bennett

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