Jane Philpott, first MD to be named health minister, on mission to help poor

Early on in her quest to help improve the health of some of the world’s most unfortunate people, Dr. suffered a setback that would have crippled many others.

Less than two years into a medical mission to Niger with husband Pep, their two-year-old daughter, Emily, contracted bacterial meningitis and died.

“It was the worst day of my life,” she told television’s 100 Huntley Street in 2012. “It’s still very fresh when I think about it. (But) I’m just thankful that God has given me the opportunity to be able to do something so that other mothers won’t have to go through what I went through.”

Philpott has, in fact, dedicated herself to Africa’s health, staying in Niger several years more, later founding an AIDS charity and helping set up Ethiopia’s first family-medicine training program.

On Wednesday, the Liberal MP for Markham-Stouffville began what will be a different kind of test, with Prime Minister naming her the new federal health minister — and making her, remarkably, the first medical doctor to fill the post.

Former colleagues describe her in glowing terms: an engaging, focused and yet selfless professional with a drive to do good.

Philpott, 54, may yet get herself in trouble heading the politically sensitive portfolio, but dig up dirt on the new health minister now?

“Good luck with that,” quipped Dr. Brian Cornelson, who worked with her on the University of Toronto project to build medical training in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

“It’s hard not to fall in love with her,” added Cornelson, now medical director of the East Calgary Family Care Centre. “She is very warm, gracious and optimistic and yet, don’t mess with her … She is all that, but firm.”

At Markham-Stouffville Hospital north of Toronto, where Philpott headed the family-medicine department for almost six years, her colleagues showed their loyalty in a surprising way.

Though largely apolitical types, many were so enthused by the prospect of her being in Parliament, they pitched in with the election campaign, said Dr. David Austin, the hospital’s chief of staff.

“Several of our doctors were out there going door to door, putting signs on the lawn and actively supporting her,” he said. “She’s an incredible person. All of the doctors at the hospital are really excited that she has taken this opportunity.”

Philpott grew up largely in southern Ontario, her father a Presbyterian minister, her mother a teacher. She talks in a blog about the lessons she learned in public service from her father, Wallace Little, who would field calls and make pastoral visits all hours of day and night.

She worked briefly in Kenya during medical school, then, in 1989, travelled to Niger with her family. Staying until 1998, she practised general medicine and helped train village health workers.

One day, Emily woke up terribly ill, feverish and vomiting.

“I realized fairly soon … she had an illness called meningococcemia, which is one of the most rapidly fatal infections known,” her mother recalled in that 100 Huntley interview. “We were not able to get her to medical attention early enough, and she actually passed away while we were driving to the closest hospital.”

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Rather than send Philpott packing from the blighted continent, the little girl’s death seems to have sharpened her focus on helping countries with horrific rates of childhood mortality.

“We knew that when we went, we were prepared to put everything on the line for our work, as I try to do every day — to say, ‘God, you gave me another day, let me use it for how you need me.’ ”

After returning to , she became a family physician in Markham, a prosperous suburb that could not be more different than West Africa. She eventually founded Give a Day To World AIDS, which has raised about $4 million by encouraging people to donate a day’s pay.

As head of the Markham-Stouffville family-medicine department, the mother of four other children set up its first program to train medical residents from the University of Toronto.

Her husband is a radio journalist with the CBC.

National Post

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