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Meet some of the at the forefront of the pandemic response

Meet some of the women at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19

From the bedside, to the lab, to the office and beyond, women are integral to fight against COVID-19. This International Women's Day, meet just a few of the women at the forefront of Sunnybrook's pandemic response, and learn more about their experiences as they have been serving, protecting and caring for our communities during the global pandemic.

Vicky poses for a photo

Victoria (Vicky) Boateng

RN and team lead in Sunnybrook’s Critical Care Unit and a member of the Rapid Response Team

Meet Victoria (Vicky) Boateng. Victoria is an RN and Team Lead in Sunnybrook’s Critical Care Unit and a member of the Rapid Response Team, a team of specially trained critical care practitioners who provide mobile urgent consultations to patients, like those with COVID-19, beyond the walls of the ICU.

Since the onset of COVID-19, 90 percent of the calls the Rapid Response Team receives are related to COVID-19 patients who begin to deteriorate quickly and need more intensive care.

“It’s definitely stressful. There is a high demand for us and our biggest challenge is limited ICU space,” says Vicky, pictured above. In nursing, there are definitely many physical demands that can take a toll on you, but the emotional presence that is required of our job can be extremely challenging as well. As nurses and as women, we are so good at helping others but we are not always good at helping ourselves. You end up taking care of everybody, but you are working on empty yourself."

The pandemic has taught Vicky a lot about mental wellbeing (especially among health care practitioners), a passion of hers.

“COVID has forced us all to take a pause, recognize what we’re grateful for and re-evaluate what really matters," says Vicky. “It’s been important for me to recognize when I need a break and practice self-care so I can be there for my patients and colleagues, when they need me most.”

When Vicky isn’t working with patients, you might find her teaching other nurses. Her advice to women starting a career in science? “Pay it forward. There is always somebody who has taken the time to teach you something; take the time to be present for the next generation even if that is just lending an ear,” says Vicky. “For me, there are several people throughout my path in science who have helped me, encouraged me and taught me. You have the opportunity to help propel people forward ​to their goals.”

Subitha poses for a photo

Subitha Rajakumaran

Project manager at the Centre for Clinical Trial Support (CCTS) at Sunnybrook

Subitha is helping to manage CATCO, one of the largest adaptive multi-centre clinical trials across Canada investigating potential treatments for COVID-19, working in conjunction with the World Health Organization's global SOLIDARITY Trial.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Subitha and the team from the CATCO Coordinating Centre have worked closely with research teams across Canada to onboard 58 institutional sites to participate in this ground-breaking treatment trial.

“It’s definitely been a rollercoaster ride,” says Subitha pictured above. 

“We got the trial up and running in a month at the beginning of the pandemic, which wouldn’t have been possible without the team effort from everyone at CCTS, Sunnybrook’s Research Ethics and Legal, and the Principal Investigators (Dr. Fowler and Dr. Murthy), working together to meet many tight deadlines. For reference, it typically takes several months to get a trial underway, because of the coordinated effort it takes from research ethics, legal, Health Canada and the study team. It has been incredibly fast-paced and I learned more in March than I would have in 8-9 months.”

Subitha and the other members of the team have put in many extra hours working on CATCO, and although it has been challenging at times, it has also been extremely rewarding. “Because the data is being analyzed in real time, we’re learning important lessons about how to treat COVID-19 which are changing patient outcomes in real time. It’s very motivating.”

As a mom to two boys who have been homeschooled since the beginning of the pandemic, Subitha says balancing work and online learning with the kids has been a juggling act. “I’m lucky to have the support of my husband so that I can concentrate on work during the day,” says Subitha. “This past year we’ve had to balance a lot. As women, we are programmed to multitask. It’s in our DNA. It’s what makes us successful.”

Garshia poses for a photo

Garshia Ferdinand-Flament

Patient care manager, Schulich Heart Program

Garshia Ferdinand-Flament was inspired to pursue a career in health care by her mother—a retired nurse who worked at Sunnybrook for over 30 years.

In deciding to follow in her mother’s footsteps and throughout her career, Garshia says, “She encouraged me, supports me, celebrates my success. She’s the wind beneath my wings.”

With the pandemic, the Schulich Heart Program patient care manager hasn’t been able to engage in activities with her mom or other friends and family. Plus, like many of us, the past year has drastically changed her work and home life.

“With COVID, it’s impacted absolutely everything,” she says.

At work, regular celebrations and gatherings that brought the team together were forced to come to a halt, creating a new normal and instituting a work life balance.

Though, while the mom and patient care manager acknowledges the changes and challenges that have come with the pandemic, she’s learned to adjust, put things into perspective, and is quick to count her blessings.

“It’s important to remind yourself that we’re in a unique situation,” she says. “Maintaining a sense of balance is essential to keep stress levels at bay.”

Zeroing in on work, she adds, “Now more than ever, team work is what people need to be successful. The best part of being with the Schulich Program is working with a fantastic group of professionals.”

For this positive attitude, and for her career success, Garshia gives credit to her mother and other strong women who paved the way before her.

“I stand on the shoulders of many strong women,” she says.

For the girls and other women who will stand on her shoulders, Garshia has these pieces of advice: “The first one is: Believe in yourself. Tell yourself that you are good enough. The next one is: Don’t compare yourself to others. Instead, compare yourself against what you know you are capable of. The last one is: Never give up.”

Gitta poses for a photo

Gitta Ankomah

Clinical coordinator, occupational therapist and alternate care provider

Gitta Ankomah has experienced a lot of change over the past year.

Prior to COVID-19, she worked as a clinical coordinator at the Working Condition Program and as an occupational therapist at the Sunnybrook Centre for Independent Living. During the pandemic, Gitta was redeployed as an alternate care provider, meaning she’s been working on new hospital teams. Those included the C5 trauma team during the first wave, and nephrology and general medicine during the second.

“My work duties changed completely,” she says. Reflecting on her first redeployment, she adds, “It was a fast-paced and unfamiliar work environment.”

“Fortunately, the excellent team on C5 was kind and encouraging,” she says.

During the pandemic, staff members like Gitta have been redeployed into different roles within the hospital to help support care teams that have the greatest need.

For some, experiencing these big work changes while fighting through a global health crisis might be an understandable source of stress. But for Gitta, she sees it as an opportunity.

“Caring for patients during the pandemic has been a wonderful experience. I really appreciate this opportunity to take on a hands-on role supporting patients and their families,” she says. “I also find the appreciation of the patients to be so motivational.”

This outlook is part of the reason why Gitta was one of the recipients of the Schulich Awards for Nursing and Clinical Excellence last year.

“She creates a culture of excellence,” says one of her award nominators. “She does not need or want credit for her work; she is just committed to performing her job well and adding value to her team.”

Today, Gitta says she is still “humbled and astonished” that multiple coworkers took the time to nominate her, and she certainly reciprocates that appreciation toward both her old colleagues and new.

“The support I have received from my coworkers during both waves of redeployment has been really helpful in keeping my spirits up,” she says. “I’m lucky to be working amongst a team that is very supportive.”

Kuganya poses for a photo

Kuganya Nirmalarajah

Master’s of science student at University of Toronto and research technician at Sunnybrook

Meet Kuganya Nirmalarajah, master’s of science student at University of Toronto and research technician at Sunnybrook. Working in virologist Dr. Samira Mubareka’s lab, Kuganya is researching the viral genome of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants to better understand the implications the variants may have on the disease.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be studying infectious diseases. Almost every day there is a new development about COVID-19,” says Kuganya pictured above. “This keeps us driven — we can see how our work is impacting public health measures and patients. It’s very motivating.”

Looking back, Kuganya’s drive and persistent curiosity is what led her to pursue a career in science. “Ever since I was young, I’ve been curious and that curiosity has really stuck with me. If you’re interested in something, take chances, try new things and follow your passions. Stay persistent,” she says.

Kuganya also credits a number of fellow female scientists as inspiration in her career. “Dr. Mubareka is so passionate and committed to making a difference in the field. It’s very inspiring. I’ve been fortunate to work with many incredible women in science who have greatly influenced my desire to pursue research and have really helped me reinforce confidence in myself,” says Kuganya.

“There are times we continue to face challenges with gender inequality in science. To successfully advocate for gender equality, we need to work together. It is reassuring that there is growing support for advancing women in the field. However, a level of accountability needs to be established when gender equality is encouraged, but not meaningfully translated into action. Working towards this change really motivates me to keep pushing forward.”

Although the pressure and the workload of the pandemic can at times be challenging, Kuganya credits her lab members for keeping her going. “Not enough can be said about how determined, dedicated and supportive everyone in our lab is,” says Kuganya. “It's a privilege to work alongside them.”

Patricia poses for a photo

Patricia Mazzotta

Patient care manager of complex malignant haematology

Patricia Mazzotta admits she is always looking for the positives. This outlook, combined with her strong passion for nursing, has seen her through the past year.

On March 9, 2020, Patricia started as Patient Care Manager of Complex Malignant Haematology. Two days later, the global pandemic was declared. Less than two weeks later, the unit moved from D4 to B3’s Short Stay Unit to free space for Sunnybrook’s first COVID-19 unit. Then, there was another move for the unit in October 2020.

“I met a lot of people in my first two weeks,” says Patricia laughing, admitting the unit’s moves were a steep learning curve for herself and her team. “Honestly, the wonderful complex malignant haematology team, together with Jan Stewart, have been safety nets for me.”

Patricia began her career as a registered practical nurse before coming to work at Sunnybrook as a registered nurse. Patricia’s clinical expertise is in emergency, trauma and critical care, as well as cardiology. She left Sunnybrook briefly for a role in academia, also working at Scarborough Health Network, before joining the complex malignant haematology team.

Born in Guatemala, she says her home country’s view of nursing has fueled her passion. “Nursing is not viewed as a respected profession in Guatemala. I think this has shaped me as a nurse and as a leader. I am passionate. I am an advocate.”

International Women’s Day prompts Patricia to reflect about the role of gender, culture and ethnicity in nursing. She says when the role of nursing in history comes up, she’s quick to reference Rufaida Al-Aslamia, born in 620AD and the first female Muslim nurse and the first female surgeon in Islam, or Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse in the early 19th century.

Currently working on her doctorate, Patricia urges women to make it a priority to find their mentors, and be willing to look for opportunities that align their goals and career aspirations.

“Seek people who have qualities that resonate with you, who inspire you, who challenge you to think outside of the box.”

Danette poses for a photo

Danette Beechinor

Director of pharmacy

Meet Danette Beechinor, Sunnybrook’s Director of Pharmacy. Danette is leading Sunnybrook’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout — from securing supply to supporting the safe administration of the vaccine.

“I have had so many broad experiences in my career, which have helped me prepare for this challenge and it’s a very proud moment,” says Danette, pictured above. “The vaccine rollout has been a huge collaborative effort, with many people stepping forward into new roles. I’m so incredibly proud to be part of the team.”

As a military pharmacist for many years, Danette credits her unique training and experience as key to helping her lead the vaccine response at Sunnybrook. “In the military, we are very focused on operations, navigating complex systems and getting things done, but we also have to be flexible to rapidly changing situations. I can’t think of better preparation for this,” says Danette.

Working in the male-dominated military and in the public sector for many years, Danette looks back on some of the challenges she faced throughout her career. “I was once in a position where I was paid significantly less than a male counterpart even though I was more qualified. I asked to be compensated equally and when I was denied, I looked for another position and moved on. It wasn’t an easy thing to do at the time, but it was important to do — especially for my daughters. I wanted to set an example for them and let them know to not be afraid to stand up for themselves.”

Reflecting on her career in science so far, Danette shares advice for other women entering the field. “Throughout your career, you are probably going to have to fight to be recognized for your work. Always discuss authorship at the first meeting. Only you deserve the credit for your hard work.”