From RCN doctor to Provincial Health Officer

Dr. Bonnie Henry

From doctor in the RCN to Provincial Health Officer: Dr. Bonnie Henry’s career progress

By SLt M.X. Déry,

The journey to Dr. Bonnie Henry becoming a household name in BC and across the rest of Canada began decades ago as the child of a military family.

During her career in the RCN, Dr. Henry was a ship’s diver, flight surgeon, and medical diver.

She still has the stereotypical answer to the question, Where are you from?

“I was born in Fredericton, NB (my father was posted to CFB Gagetown), but I consider Charlottetown my hometown,” she says, because her father was a Major with Lord Strathcona’s Horse, Canadian Army. “We moved around a lot.”

She grew up in towns across Canada and abroad – from Charlottetown to Calgary to St. John’s and even as far away as the Netherlands.

But it was summer employment with the Naval Reserves 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 for BC, managing COVID-19, the first woman to hold that position.   

An interest in medicine led her to Dalhousie University Faculty of Medicine in Halifax. While completing her Medical Degree, she decided to follow her father’s path and join the CAF.

“Being an armoured corps officer, he was sorely disappointed when I joined the navy,” she quips.

The military, always in need of medical staff, paid for the last two years of her degree.

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 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.”

Dr. Henry notes that while she wasn’t the strongest diver, she persevered through the training and managed donning the complex dive gear and operating the heavy dive equipment.

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 donning the complex dive gear and operating the heavy dive equipment.

As a medical officer, she sailed in HMC Ships Annapolis, Provider and Regina, and attended to the medical needs of the crew. She recalls many late night knocks at her cabin door from a sailor needing something minor such as a Band-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 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.”
Her wisdom has grown through her work with UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and dealing with public health crises at varying levels in Canada, such as anthrax, polio, ebola, SARS and H1N1. Now she advises the province on how to handle this global pandemic.

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, BC residents, as well as all Canadians, should continue to follow Dr. Henry’s advice: “Be kind. Be calm. Be safe.”