True Calling

By Jennifer Hartley
Photos John Major

Canada’s top medical doctor packs a powerful message

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began ,her face has become synonymous with the Canadian response, recognizable from coast to coast to coast. She has been here throughout, advising Canadians daily on how to best protect themselves, all the while preventing hysteria and paranoia. It is not an easy task and yet, while it is not something she probably ever imagined would happen, her career has prepared Dr. Theresa Tam to deal with the massive challenges she faces as Chief Public Health Officer of Canada.

Described by everyone around her, from the offices of cabinet ministers to her own staff, as the essence of professionalism, Dr. Tam is dedicated and supremely focused on her job, which she has held since June 2017.Just who is this steady hand steering us through these stormy waters of COVID-19?

When you meet her, you are greeted by an unassuming and gentle presence. However, from the second she begins to speak, her sharp intellect shines through. As she tells her story, it is clear that
behind this modest, calm, demure front is in fact a trailblazer in the field of women in epidemiology and science. John F. Kennedy once said that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Dr. Tam epitomizes both and is at the top of her game.

Early on, she already knew her calling. “I decided to go into medicine in high school. I loved biology, physics, chemistry and at that time, there were not a lot of girls, but I loved all aspects of science. ”She followed that path and attended medical school in the United Kingdom (University of Nottingham) and focused on paediatrics because she adores children.

She completed her paediatric residency at the University of Alberta and her fellowship in paediatric infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia. However, for her as a paediatrician, it was extremely difficult often giving parents bad news about their children’s health and she had the itch to make a difference in another way.

“I became fascinated by infectious diseases and chose to specialize in that field. At that time, very few of my colleagues were interested in this component of medicine — they didn’t think it was going anywhere interesting — but I thought, what can be more interesting than microbes?!”

She was introduced to public health when she took a job with Health Canada as a field epidemiologist as a member of the team of‘ disease detectives. ’“We investigated what causes outbreaks,

which I found fascinating and so important for protecting health. I also gained expertise in immunization, emergency preparedness and global health security.”

In fact, Dr. Tam was a co-chair of a 2006 federal report on pandemic preparedness in the wake of SARS, which was in hindsight, incredibly accurate on predicting the current pandemic. Her expertise in the field has resulted in over 55 peer reviewed journal publications, the top job in public health in Canada, and she serves as an international expert on a number of World Health Organization (WHO) committees and international missions, including the first WHO Influenza Pandemic Task Force. She is a force to be reckoned with and no virus stands a chance against her.

Her job as Chief of Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is to provide evidence-based, expert advice to decision-makers and communicate pandemic health risks to Canadians, which in light of COVID-19, has taken on epic proportions.(PHAC was founded in 2004, in response to the 2003 SARS outbreak. Its goal is to improve and strengthen the country’s ability to respond to public
health threats, outbreaks and emergencies.)

It has been an incredible journey over the last few months, as the pandemic landscape has continually changed. She has had to learn so many new things at warp speed, while simultaneously providing guidance to Canadians. “The most difficult challenge is that we are living in uncertain times. We are trying to integrate new things all the time.”

COVID-19 is unlike any pandemic the world has experienced in over 100 years. “When you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen only one pandemic. Each one is unique.” In Canada, the SARS pandemic, in particular, highlighted the importance of interprovincial collaboration and the COVID-19 pandemic is providing the opportunity to put those lessons into practice.

The process of trying to figure out the behaviour of a new virus is not always understood by the public. Some of the vitriol usually reserved for politicians was thrown her way, as some of the advice to the public changed and evolved, as more and more about COVID-19 was uncovered.

Normally, bureaucrats like Dr. Tam or her provincial colleagues are not thrust into the limelight like they have been during COVID-19. For Dr. Tam, who is a self-declared extreme introvert, it has been somewhat difficult.

The mud-throwing smear campaign founded in patronizing disrespect from politicians such as MP Derek Sloan and Chilliwack School District Trustee Barry Neufeld, as well as internet conspiracy theorists was a despicable development — ugly and personal. Clearly a diplomat about the whole thing, she said: “There are lots of things coming at you and it is difficult to be in the spotlight
with many people providing different opinions. But I look at it that I have an important role to play and I remain singularly focused on the task at hand.”

Thankfully, the general public response to the attacks was astoundingly supportive of her with Facebook campaigns and other pro-Dr. Tam initiatives popping up everywhere. A mural dedicated to her, appeared on a boarded-up building in Gastown, Vancouver. Its popularity took off and was taken down from its original spot to become part of the 2020 Vancouver Mural Festival, which took place in September. They are popping up in other places too, such as Victoria, B.C.

Her intrigue is a very good thing for the rest of us, as she tries to figure out how to deal with the whopper of a microbe that has brought the world to its knees.

COVID Facts Seniors

COVID-19 has been life-altering for everyone. But, it has been even more devastating for seniors and the loss has been tragic.

Of the 296,077 cases in Canada (at time of publishing) and 10,953 COVID deaths, 71 per cent were over the age of 80 (and it is no secret the majority of those were in long-term care facilities).The
number of deaths decreases with each demographic decade, with people between 70 and 79 accounting for 18.1 per cent of deaths and 7.3 per cent for those between 60 to 69 per cent.

A big question for seniors is whether more can be done than the usual COVID health commandments of wash your hands, wear a three-layered mask and practice the “three Cs”(avoid closed spaces with poor ventilation, stay out of crowded places and avoid close-contact settings). Surprisingly, Dr. Tam’s core advice is the same for all age groups. We have all heard the refrain.

However, she adds that it is important for seniors to charge up on ‘know how.’

Keep track of symptoms every single day. Think ahead and be aware of where you can get help.

Get your flu shot. Flu season is here at the same as the COVID-19 second wave escalates at a very rapid pace. Protect yourself as much as possible.

Get all other necessary immunizations. Statistically, very few adults are up to date.

Beef up your techno knowledge. Tam suggests learning about accessing online services. Mental health for many has taken a hit with the psychological impacts of COVID-19 and isolation. Wellness Together is a great online resource for mental health care and it is free.

Dr. Tam personally understands the struggles. She comes from a close-knit family and has aging parents who live in another city in Canada. This “has made me aware of the challenges associated with physical distancing that Canadians are experiencing. There are the emotional and psychological implications of staying physically apart from the ones you love. This can lead to loneliness and social isolation, but you really need to make an effort to stay connected.”

She has even made Zoom fans out of her parents. “My parents for instance, while elderly, have really accelerated their learning on electronic devices.”(She encourages younger Canadians familiar with social media and virtual platforms to reach out and help seniors in their family or community who may not be as tech-savvy.)

The question of long-term care residents is a whole other issue. This pandemic has shone glaring light on the inadequacies: the fact that it is a complex environment because it involves both the public and private sectors, multiple levels of government, and health workers who need support. And of course, residents themselves face a number of issues such as underlying medical conditions, personal support needs that require frequent and close interaction with others and co-living situations. They are all part of a huge challenge. This issue is much bigger than just the
response to a pandemic. This is a redefining moment for elderly care and the discussion is just beginning.

Dr. Tam’s thoughts on long-term care facility reform are of course insightful, but they also offer a glimpse into her philosophical approach to public health.

“As we transform our long-term care facilities, we see that the conversation is not just about the elderly, but about wider structural, economic, and societal factors that contributed to the tragedies that occurred in these settings. Some examples include low-paying jobs, understaffed facilities, and reliance on institutional care rather than community care and aging in place strategies.”

Equity in health care is a message she constantly repeats, and her passion is palpable. One of her strategic goals is to “be the voice for inclusion.” She says this really has a tangible impact on the health of our population and supports overall health and wellbeing. “I champion the reduction of health disparities in key populations in Canada, so the poorest and most marginalized in Canada have an opportunity to lead the most-healthy lives possible, both physically and mentally.”

The pandemic has been an unbelievable challenge, but it has also provided an opportunity to stop, think and reflect on how we can improve on health care delivery. Ever the learner and leader
looking for solutions, Dr. Tam understands that.

While it is easy to become parochial and paranoid in a situation like COVID-19, Dr. Tam emphasizes that public health is always about solving complex problems. “It encompasses a lot of collaboration, a lot of the learning and is about building relationships, building trust. ”Partnering with other countries, having been exposed to many different countries and how they respond has helped to bring her to where she is. “I am now in an interesting position that I can lend my voice to very important health issues.”

At the end of the day, while we must all keep to our bubble, we are paradoxically in this together at the national and international levels. We are all united in efforts to solve this problem that has touched the world and Dr. Tam is one of those at the centre of the effort.

She continues to provide advice on keeping safe and with no subject too sacred, Dr. Tam made headlines around the world in September when she advised going it alone, practising some self-love on the sexual front or if introducing a new person to your bubble to wear a mask.

With all the focus on COVID, it is easy to forget there are other issues in her mandate.

“In my role as Chief Public Health Officer, I have also made the opioid crisis a priority. Tragically, in many communities, the pandemic is compounding a deadly and ongoing public health
crisis of opioid overdose and death. Many regions of the country are struggling with historic rates of drug overdose and harms, so some would say that we’re seeing not one but really two concurrent pandemics in this country.”

She is absolutely right. In B.C., for example, drug overdose deaths have been outnumbering COVID deaths. In September 2020, there were 127 suspected illicit drug deaths (a 112 per cent
increase over the number of deaths seen in September 2019.

Outside of work

When she is not worrying about the health of Canadians, in what little spare time she has, she reads. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, which is in her blood. Both her parents are educators and ignited in her the importance of seizing every opportunity to acquire knowledge. She has done that in spades. She is passionate about the arts and not surprising, is a bit of an overachiever on that front as well. She plays five instruments — piano, cello, violin, trumpet and the tin whistle. “Playing instruments is a form of creativity and self-expression, complementary to the logic and reasoning behind my love for science.” She says that, as if doing all of this is commonplace.

She loves sci-fi and as you might expect from someone involved in health care, she is very conscious about being healthy. In fact, she sounds like the poster child of healthy living. She can’t live without vegetables (broccoli in particular) and when asked about a guilty pleasure, she said she drinks too much tea. She is a keen athlete, a long-distance runner (as in marathons) — “running is pretty meditative for me” — she loves yoga, meditation and walking.

She loves to laugh. She loves cartoons, is delightfully funny herself, and loves to watch kids play with their toys, discovering the world around them. Like many people with responsibilities, she doesn’t sleep a lot. “Every year, my new year’s resolution is to sleep more. I fail every year.” One wonders if that is in part due to the weight of her job. Not surprisingly, she is a workaholic. “I have to remember to take the advice I give to get a little bit of balance in my life.”

In many ways, she is an extraordinary individual, brilliant at what she does and yet paradoxically a regular person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. When asked to describe herself in three
ways, tenacious, patient and adaptable roll off her tongue. Those three characteristics are needed desperately in these strange times and serve us and her very well. “Reflecting back on my career path, working on addressing a virus like COVID-19 is what I was meant to do.”

The unassuming Dr. Tam has been propelled to national hero status. She is now regularly seen on national television providing Canadians with important updates.

Closer to home, you might just see her booting around town in her funky sports car; bump into her during her run in the streets of Ottawa, or at the grocery store buying her beloved broccoli.
Whatever the case, we are lucky to have her at the health helm. Canada is in good hands.

COVID-19 Commandments
• Wash your hands.
• Wear a three-layer mask.
• Practice the “three Cs” (avoid closed spaces with poor ventilation, stay out of crowded places and avoid close-contact settings).
• Keep track of symptoms every single day.
• Think ahead and be aware of where you can get help.
• Get your flu shot and any other immunizations you may need to stay as healthy as possible.
• Beef up your techno knowledge.
Visit Wellness Together for mental health care resources.
For the best information on COVID-19, visit
Get the free government COVID-19 Alert app available on Google Play and Apple App Store.
COVID Alert helps us break the cycle of infection. The app can let people know of possible exposures before any symptoms appear.