Dr. Theresa Tam featured in this year’s Immigrant Women of Inspiration

Dr. Theresa Tam has been chosen as one of Canadian Immigrant’s 2021 Immigrant Women of Inspiration. This year, we shine 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.

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.

She encourages everyone to find ways to make connections, where it is online or offline. “If you don’t have access to the technology to have these types of virtual connections, some public libraries will loan out laptops or tablets for those in need during COVID. There are also many community and faith-based organizations that can help newcomers adjust and develop new social connections. Please use these resources.”

Tam is very hopeful about the future and confident about a better summer and fall than last year. “I am very optimistic about the coming months…spring and summer are just around the corner, which will allow us all to get outside more often. We’ve all felt pretty isolated this winter. It is so important to stay active, such as getting out for a walk each day, in order to boost energy levels and feel better overall.

“Our vaccine program is now well underway, and many people have already gotten their vaccine. More vaccines are on the way, and so we will see many, many more people vaccinated during the spring and summer. Part of protecting both ourselves and others is by rolling up our sleeves to get vaccinated when the time comes. I hope as many people as possible get vaccinated as soon as possible so that we can go back to doing some of the things we love, knowing that everyone has the added layer of protection that vaccines afford,” she says.

Speaking to the added challenge of the emergence of the new virus variants, she asks Canadians to stay vigilant and follow public health measures. “I want to emphasize that our trusted public health measures are effective even against new strains of the COVID-19 virus, so we need to keep doing them. “I always recommend that everyone follow proven public health measures that can help reduce your risk of contracting and spreading COVID.

These include limiting close contacts, wearing a mask when you can’t ensure a distance of two metres when in public, staying home if you’re sick, and getting tested or seeking out treatment if you experience COVID-19 symptoms,” says Tam.

She adds that testing is freely available and local health authorities can be consulted on finding how to get tested. She stresses the importance of being aware of COVID-19 prevention recommendations, based on disease activity in specific areas.

So, what keeps Tam inspired and committed to doing what she does? The People, she says. “When I was practicing pediatrics, I was constantly inspired by kids as they smile, learn new things and carry on playing the moment they feel a little better in themselves. In public health, the population is my patient and I continue to be amazed by the resiliency and the collective actions taken by everyone in Canada to stay safe and well during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.

“Each day people in Canada do the things they know they need to do to protect their families, friends and communities. They wear masks, keep a safe distance when in public, they wash their hands, stay home when they are sick and get tested when they have symptoms of COVID-19. They keep our communities going by transporting essential goods and working in grocery stores, schools and hospitals. I am inspired by how everyone has come and worked together over the past year and I am absolutely committed to my work for them.

“I am also inspired to do my work because I know that I can count on incredibly talented and dedicated public health colleagues across the country to do their best to keep everyone safe. I know I can pick their brains if I need to solve complex problems and we lean on each other for mental health support during tough times,” she says.

Click here for Canadian Immigrant’s 2021 Women of Inspiration feature.