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'I have thicker skin now': Dr. Jennifer Russell shares highs and lows of being New Brunswick's top doc

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Her daughter was just over a year old when Dr. Jennifer Russell was informed she was being deployed to Dubai, and possibly Afghanistan.

The military doctor hadn’t yet weaned from breastfeeding when she stepped onto a flight to Wainwright, A.B., for pre-deployment training.

A photo of Dr. Jennifer Russell from her time in the military. (Courtesy: Dr. Jennifer Russell)

“So for breastfeeding moms out there who know what happens when you’re going through that phase of, you know, your hormones are kind of all over the place and you're sweating and all sorts of other things are happening,” she said. “And then going out to the field in Wainwright and having showers in containers.”

It's hard to imagine the parallel: from a military uniform in an Alberta field, to blazers and masks guiding a province through a global pandemic.

A picture of Dr. Jennifer Russell from her time in the military. (Courtesy: Dr. Jennifer Russell)

Russell says for her, there are many parallels.

“At that time, I left my kids behind to do my work, and this time they had to leave me so I could do my work,” she said. “And so there was a little bit of a parallel of that feeling of serving my country at that time, and here I am serving my province this time.”

She spent a decade in the military before working in public health.

A picture of Dr. Jennifer Russell from her time in the military. (Courtesy: Dr. Jennifer Russell)

Friday marked her last day as New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health. She spent eight years in the job, including a stint as acting chief medical officer.

“Taking my plate, my name plate off the door, you know, I'm not going to be chief medical officer of health anymore,” she said. “There have been a few tears and but I think the next chapter is going to be really interesting and exciting.”

Russell is taking the lead on an institute studying population health at the University of New Brunswick.

She claims she looks back on her time as the province’s top doctor and doesn’t have any regrets, but it certainly wasn’t an easy job.

Russell was front and centre, essentially the face of the pandemic in the province. It came with scrutiny, criticism, threats and comments.

Dr. Jennifer Russell speaks at a COVID-19 update in Fredericton on June 16, 2021. (Laura Brown/CTV Atlantic)

“There was someone who wrote an email criticizing me saying that I was obese and they thought that I was at-risk of dying from COVID if I got COVID, because I was so obese,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty. There was some nasty stuff but I have a thicker skin now.”

During the first year of the pandemic, her children had to move in with their father full time while she was spending 14-20 hours a day at the office.

“I wasn't home. There were no groceries in the fridge. There was no food that I was preparing for anybody,” she said. “I am proud of my kids, and yes, it did impact them, but at the same time, I think they had the right support that they needed. We kept in close touch. I sometimes would be up here with the Premier and I'd have my cell phone and my daughter would be texting me.”

She says she knows the impact the pandemic and isolation had on all generations. She saw it in her own family.

“Anybody who was going through that developmental phase of junior high, high school,” she said. “My daughter made a comment about the fact that, you know, she was basically in lockdown from Grade 9 to Grade 11, I know that it was really, really hard academically for kids. I think my son, he was in Grade 11 when the pandemic hit, and his academics definitely suffered.”

Some criticism questioned her independence but she maintains her role was as a civil servant, who gives advice to the government.

When asked if she would change anything about the job, she said no.

She did have some advice for who comes next.

“I think I would say, work life balance, number one,” she said. “I think having great working relationships is really important. So investing that time and energy to get to know your colleagues, your staff, and know yourself.”

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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