During my career as a staff physician, I have injected clot-busting drugs into veins faltering under heart attacks, kept septic patients alive on an IV and a prayer while waiting for rural helicopter transport, and faced down patients screaming profanities when I could not cure their physical and psychic pain — but my first steps as a mother were the hardest ones I have ever walked.
An unending march of breastfeeding, diapering and soothing, the months after my son was born were marked by my breathtaking love for him, profound sleep deprivation and worry. That if I stopped thinking about his needs for one moment I would be less of a mother, and something awful might happen to this remarkable little one who was so dependent on me. And yet here he is now five and a half years later, kind, thoughtful, beautiful and whole.
If one values control and competency, a novel, uncontrollable situation that threatens a bad outcome is a recipe for stress and self-doubt. At the same time, it can also spur you to rise, confront and deploy every skill you have to meet the challenge. Make no mistake: this potent combination of vigilance, grit, compassion, resilience and trust makes physician mothers some of the most effective leaders in our fight against the dual crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
Vigilance and preparation are essential to being a skilled mother and acute-care physician. When she began to realize what COVID-19 could mean for her remote community, Dr. Courtney Howard, a Yellowknife emergency doctor and mother of two girls, “went down a deep Twitter and literature review rabbit hole,” waking the next morning with a sense of impending doom — and ready to take action.
She responded the same way when she learned of the human health risks of climate change, first curling up in grief around her infant daughter, and eventually becoming board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment in 2017.
In an interview, she described the flurry of intense activity over the following weeks “as we prepared for what felt like it was about to be the clinical challenge of our lives.” Howard was on shift when the Northwest Territories’ first and only hospitalized COVID-19 patient arrived in the ER. She remembers feeling tremendously grateful for the coordinated and skilled collaboration between public health, government and on-the-ground health-care providers that so far has resulted in only five detected cases in her territory. And she is ready to take this gratitude and energy to her fierce advocacy efforts against climate change.
Motherhood, especially when combined with the responsibilities of medical work, can also be an exercise in perseverance. One evening last week, Dr. Monika Dutt couldn’t console her inexplicably upset eight-year-old son; until then she had been pleased with how well he’d seemed to be handling the new restrictions on their lives.
As a single parent, distance runner, family physician in Cape Breton and medical officer of health, her plate is overflowing. She admitted over email that this has made it difficult for her to stay patient and give her son the attention he needs. And yet somehow, she manages to do it all despite logging long hours, saying, “I work mostly at home and COVID-19 issues can come up at any time.”
Dutt said that environmental issues are integral to her work in northern, rural and smaller Canadian towns, where she has promoted public health policies needed to respond to climate change.
She also recognizes the importance of connecting to and preserving the natural world, saying, “I spend a lot of time outdoors and try to decrease my carbon footprint through actions like bike commuting.” And it seems Dutt knew one of the keys to her son’s happiness all along — when they finally found a day to steal away to the coastal sunshine and waves of Cape Breton, it was a joyful, restorative day for both of them.
Sometimes empathizing with the suffering you see in your own community can inspire you to make personal change. In an interview, Dr. Han Sol Kang, an emergency physician in Kitchener-Waterloo, lamented “the strain and suffering of all those affected by the dead and dying [and] mental health problems from isolation” during the pandemic.
"Female physicians have never been in a more influential position to enact change — so let’s not waste this opportunity to help them."
She worried that her heart-attack patients were avoiding the ER until it was too late, and that many of her COVID-19 patients had been unable to stay home from the low-income factory jobs that infected them. But she also marvelled that “something bigger than ourselves is making us stop and give the planet a break.”
Moved to make the world healthier for her kindergartner, toddler and neighbours, Kang has been buying local, walking more for transportation, reducing her consumer mindset by making do with what she already has at home, and plans to grow her own vegetables even when the pandemic is over.
Research shows that building resilience and combatting the roots of eco-anxiety through lifestyle changes and activism can be effective treatments for it by empowering and connecting people to their communities. Dr. Natalie Cousineau works in a busy ER department in Barrie where she sees COVID-19 patients every shift. She’s been careful to teach her kids, nine and 12, the importance of doing their part for the environment and gets them outdoors nearly every day on the extensive protected trails near her home.
Over email, Cousineau told me that “once I’m at work it’s easier to simply focus on what we do,” but added, “COVID-19 has changed everything … I've tried hard not to let my anxiety show, because I know how easily kids pick up on that.”
Though some of her colleagues are living apart from their families to avoid infecting them, she manages her own fears by staying in full protective gear during her entire work shift (no risk of contamination from water or snacks) and disinfecting everything she brings home. Ultimately, the inspiration she draws from her colleagues, much like what sustains physicians in the climate movement, is what keeps her going: “We’ve laughed together, cried together, mourned deaths and celebrated saves ... I am in awe of their strength and dedication to helping others.”
Not surprisingly, Canadians have taken note of the bravery and dedication of our female doctors. Public health officers such as Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Dr. Kami Kandola and Dr. Theresa Tam are now folk heroes, inspiring T-shirts and sold-out shoe designs, fan clubs and murals on city streets.
Hinshaw, mother to two school-aged children, sparked a ramp-up in production and reissue of a discontinued periodic table dress simply by wearing it during a televised COVID-19 briefing. A recent survey about the pandemic revealed that the public trusts health professionals like doctors and nurses almost twice as much as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And every evening at 7 p.m., I am buoyed by the care of my community as my Vancouver street erupts into a cacophony of clanging pots, pans and applause for front-line workers.
Indeed, female physicians have never been in a more influential position to enact change — so let’s not waste this opportunity to help them.
To all Canadians: let us continue to honour and support their essential work towards a healthier country.
To my fellow doctor moms: let us band together, centralize our message and communicate our priorities for recovery funds with our newly powerful voice, even as the pandemic competes for our attention. Let us wield our trend-setting power when we choose active transport and plant-rich diets more often, and local vacations instead of air travel when the pandemic ends. Let us call for more virtual conferencing and further investments in online connection like the federal government announced this month. Let us ensure that our richer nation continues to support those nations in greater economic need with wealth transfers. And in our quest to decarbonize our country, let us care for workers in the oil sector who have buoyed our economy in the past by helping them transition to good jobs in a renewable-energy future.
So as another Mother’s Day passes, I think of my fellow physician mothers who are working on the front lines in cities and towns across this country. I stand shoulder to shoulder with you as you hold your children and families, your patients and communities, up in your capable, loving arms. The global battle against COVID-19 and climate change is a calling and a challenge that will take nothing less than our best — and I can’t imagine a better group of women to meet it with.