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Meet the woman leading the territory with all COVID-19 cases recovered

Dr. Kami Kandola missed her son’s first birthday because of the H1N1 pandemic.

She was the Northwest Territories’ chief medical health officer at the time. On Friday her son turned 12 and she was determined not to let being a top medical official during a pandemic get in the way of being a mom.

“I cried that day … and then I realized that when you are a public health professional the public good has to outweigh your individual interests,” Kandola said. 

As the N.W.T.’s chief public health officer, it’s something she needs to balance now more than ever; her personal needs with the needs of the public’s health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under Kandola, the territory has seen restrictive public health orders over the past month. Kandola’s order in late March to close the border and ban non-essential travel to the territory led the way for other jurisdictions to take similar actions. Earlier this month an order banned nearly all social gatherings both indoors and outdoors, with few exceptions. 

So far, all five confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the territory have recovered.

Who is Kami Kandola?

Kandola in Grade four, she went to elementary school in Montreal. (Submitted by Kami Kandola)

Long before Kandola had any official titles, she was a young girl growing up in England with a dream of becoming a doctor one day. 

When she was nine years old, her family moved to Quebec where she was enrolled in a Catholic school in Montreal. It was there that one of the nuns told Kandola about her experiences working in Haiti. 

“In my head, I thought, ‘I want to be a doctor, but I want to help people who really need my help.'”

Kandola’s resume is lengthy: it begins with a medical degree from McGill University, which led her to opportunities working in northern Quebec. It was during this time in 1994 that she met Dr. Andre Corriveau, former chief public health officer of the Northwest Territories. 

Before returning to the North, she went back to school at Johns Hopkins University to focus on global health, and worked in a number of international locations including Brazil, India, Côte d’Ivoire, and China.

If I bow to pressure and public criticism I will lose my ship and what is navigating me through these rough waters.– Dr. Kami Kandola

In 2002, she reunited with Corriveau again in Yellowknife and agreed to take what was supposed to be a six-month position as a regional medical health officer. She has now been in the N.W.T. for almost 17 years.

“I hope and I pray that I’ve been seen as a dependable person who will always be there … through the good and the bad. I’ll be here and I’ll stick through,” she said.

Kami Kandola graduated from McGill University’s faculty of medicine in 1992. (Submitted by Kami Kandola)

Corriveau was, and continues to be, one of Kandola’s greatest mentors. He taught her to have a “thick skin” and to make tough decisions based on numbers, not public pressure.

“If I bow to pressure and public criticism I will lose my ship and what is navigating me through these rough waters — which are public health principles.” 

Kandola worked at the Canadian International Development Agency from 1998 to 2003. During that time she also worked at the World Health Organization in Geneva. She took some time off to hike in the Swiss Alps. (Submitted by Kami Kandola)

‘It’s been tough’

Kandola said she would love to ease-up the restrictions as soon as possible, but she doesn’t want to risk throwing away all of the hard work and sacrifice that it has taken from people across the territory to get to a containment stage of the novel coronavirus.

On a personal level, she has also had to make sacrifices due to the restrictions. In the past month she has had to cancel multiple family gatherings, a family vacation, and a trip to see her son’s favourite band in concert. 

Kami Kandola with her four children and her husband, Norm. She says getting out on the land with her family and going on walks has helped her during the pandemic. (Submitted by Kami Kandola)

With every order and restriction she puts in place she knows that it can have devastating economic impacts on people she knows and loves. 

“It’s been tough when people are having to try to apply for unemployment when they don’t know if they can make the rent for their business when they were already struggling before.”

Despite having to leave her personal life at the door for the most part through the pandemic, taking care of her mental health remains important — and getting out on the land helps her do that.

‘These are my Avengers’

When she gets home she unwinds by watching the Mission Impossible series and Marvel superhero movies with her youngest son.

“It’s actually fascinating … the goal seems so far to reach and evil is all around. And then … you have a team of people trying to work for the good.”

Dr. Kandola’s team meets in a daily huddle every morning to discuss their plans and next steps for COVID-19. She says they’re like superheroes taking on a very big mission. (Chantal Dubuc/ CBC)

Every morning she meets with her team for a daily “COVID morning huddle” where they discuss their next steps. Kandola also has a superhero cape that she hangs on the back of her desk chair. 

“When I’m doing my morning huddle, these are my Avengers … we want to get through the first wave, the second wave, and the third wave until we get a vaccine or effective antivirals.”

When Dr. Kandola is done fighting off the pandemic, she looks forward to being Kami again for a little bit. She plans on taking a trip to Hawaii with her family. 

“That’s when Kami gets to come back.”

Kami Kandola and her family on vacation in Montego Bay, Jamaica. When the pandemic is over she hopes to go to Hawaii. (Submitted by Kami Kandola)

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