Former naval officer leads B.C.’s response to COVID-19 pandemic

Navy News / October 16, 2020

By Sub-Lieutenant M.X. Déry

Dr. Bonnie Henry is a prime example of the outstanding achievements of Canadian women who are celebrated during Women’s History Month in October.

A former naval officer, Dr. Henry is British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, the first woman to hold that position.

Her journey to becoming a household name in B.C. and across Canada began decades ago as the child of a military family.

“I was born in Fredericton as my father was posted to nearby Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Gagetown, but I consider Charlottetown my hometown,” she says.

Her father was a major with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment in the Canadian Army. “We moved around a lot.”

Dr. Henry grew up in towns across Canada and abroad including Charlottetown, Calgary, Saint John’s and the Netherlands.

But it was summer employment with the Naval Reserve as a Naval Warfare Officer, then known as a Naval Control of Shipping Officer, that would lead her to B.C. and eventually to Provincial Health Officer, managing the province’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interested in medicine, she attended the Dalhousie University Faculty of Medicine in Halifax. During the third year of her medical degree, Dr. Henry enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and served as a medical officer after graduating. She was based at CFB Esquimalt, B.C., and served for 10 years.

“Being an armoured corps officer, (my father) was sorely disappointed when I joined the navy,” she quips.

Like her current position, back in the 1990s she was a female rarity in the medical, navy and diving world. She spent almost 10 years showcasing how a woman can excel in the military domain. During her service, she was a ship’s diver, flight surgeon and medical diver. Each of those roles required special training that exposed her to physical and mental stressors.

“They were all physically demanding and intellectually stimulating,” she says. “I really enjoyed the physical part, as well as the understanding, from a medical perspective, of the occupational challenges that life in the military and specific things such as diving or flying have on people.”

She dove with Fleet Diving Unit clearance divers to understand the unique challenges of the underwater environment and their medical needs should a situation arise where the decompression chamber is required. While she wasn’t the strongest diver, she persevered through the training and managed to don the complex dive gear and operate the heavy dive equipment.

As a medical officer, she sailed in Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Annapolis, Provider and Regina, and attended to the medical needs of the crew. She recalls many late night knocks at her cabin door from sailors needing medical aid.

“As a medical officer, my job was 90 per cent boredom and 10 per cent panic,” she says wryly. “My role in the ship was also a public health one.”

During port visits, she held the customary briefings to explain the importance of protective measures in foreign cities, from food dangers to sexual safety.

She was even at the forefront of banning smoking in warships. At that time sailors could puff away inside the ship, even in the racks.

“I walked into a meeting and most of the men there were smokers. We had done a survey and 50 per cent of the crew were smokers,” she said.

Despite coming prepared to argue for the ban, it wasn’t required.

“It surprised me that they all agreed smoking was bad and it was banned [inside the ship].”

The uniqueness of sailing in a warship stays with her to this day.

“I remember sailing down to [Exercise] RIMPAC. Half way to Hawaii we stopped the ship to have a swim. There is something about swimming in the middle of the ocean when you realize the closest piece of land is one nautical mile away, straight down.”

In 1995, Dr. Henry retired from the military, exchanging her weighted diver’s boots and sailor footwear for her signature Fluevog shoes. When she joined the civilian workforce, she took with her the many lessons learned about leadership and decision making.

“I learned the importance of understanding what people do to deal with a crisis. In a crisis it is important to make decisions with the best information you have at the time, but often the information is imperfect and there may be things we don’t yet know. Not everybody is comfortable making a decision in these circumstances.”

Dr. Henry is a specialist in public health and preventive medicine and is board certified in preventive medicine in the United States. After Dalhousie Medical School, she completed a Masters in Public Health in San Diego, Calif., residency training in preventive medicine at the University of California San Diego, and in community medicine at University of Toronto.

She has worked internationally including with the WHO/UNICEF polio eradication program in Pakistan and with the World Health Organization to control the Ebola outbreak in Uganda. She is also an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Medicine.

To her health care colleagues currently in uniform thinking of careers after military service, she offers this advice.

“Be confident that the training and experience you have from the military will hold you in good stead in the civilian world as well. That and the extra experience you get from a leadership perspective can be readily transferable. Just don’t expect everyone in the ‘real’ world to follow your advice!”

As the pandemic continues around the world, Dr. Henry’s advice is to “Be kind. Be calm. Be safe.”