Chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa delivers hard COVID-19 news with a dose of optimism

By | April 19, 2020

Not much rattles Lanette Siragusa.

Her 25 years in nursing have cemented a character and composure that makes it a breeze to face TV cameras and address Manitobans every day on the impact of COVID-19.

“Nobody goes into health care to be in front of the TV all the time, or on the radio all the time, so it wasn’t anywhere in my plans, for sure,” said Siragusa, the chief nursing officer at Shared Health.

Every day since March 12, she has sat alongside the province’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin — although the space between them has increased with physical distancing measures — to give the latest numbers.

“I’m trying not to think about the cameras so much as the role that I play and Dr. Roussin plays,” she said.

That role “is really to make sure that, as the incident commanders of this pandemic planning, we get the message out, make sure we’re connecting the dots, and really [being] the conduit between the government, the health-care planning and the public information.”

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer, looks over as Lanette Siragusa speaks at a daily briefing. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Their calm presence in the face of sometimes grim news has been a steady hand for a nervous public. Siragusa credits that to a larger team that prepares them with the information.

“It’s quite amazing the work that is not seen behind us. There’s an army of people who are working incredibly hard. They’re talented, they’re brilliant, they’re innovative,” she said. 

“A death is horrible and makes us all feel bad but it’s important that everyone knows how this is impacting us. And if our supplies don’t come in as we expected, that’s a hurdle we have to get through, too, but we do have faith in our team.

“As long as we have solutions, then we can deliver hard messages.”

Siragusa also makes an effort to deliver positive news, highlighting inspiring things happening as well.

“This is a moment in time — there’s going to be lots of stories that we’re going to remember and there’s gonna be lots of unexpected heroes that come out of this,” she said.

“It’s about getting through, but it’s also about celebrating the good times or the good people.”

For more than five weeks, the only day she and Roussin have not offered a live update was Easter Sunday. They have become as well known as any local celebrity, earning memes and even Lego treatments.

Winnipegger Tyler Walsh created a Lego video based on one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speeches, and gave a shout out ‘to Manitoba’s hardworking health duo’ of Siragusa and Roussin. (Tyler Walsh)

“There’s a lot of people watching and a lot of emails from people who are asking questions or giving support. So it’s good. It helps to remind us and make sure that we’re staying on the right track,” Siragusa said.

She now gets stopped by people who recognize her and want to say hi, but her partner is more popular, she joked.

“I come across a lot of Dr. Roussin fans, and that’s totally fine,” she said.

One of her biggest fans is her son Austin, who trumpeted his pride in her on Twitter.

“She’s one the strongest women out there. She’s always been a role model to me with her work ethics and drive,” he said. “She doesn’t stop working until her head hits the pillow.”

Siragusa said Austin has been giving her constructive criticism and media tips. He works for True North Sports & Entertainment but got his feet plenty wet in the local media pool, first with CJOB radio and then on TV with Global News.

“She might not like [being on TV] so much but I know a lot of Winnipeggers who’ve said they appreciate what she’s doing. It resonates with people,” Austin said.

Asked what can throw her off, Lanette Siragusa didn’t think much more than two seconds: “Not much actually.”

“If something comes in front of me that seems insurmountable or really problematic, then I just know I have to find the solution. Sometimes it takes a lot of people to find the more complex answers, but there’s usually a way out,” she said.

“I like a challenge. This [coronavirus] is definitely my biggest one, though.”

Winnipeg roots

A born-and-raised Winnipegger, Siragusa said there’s a lot about her city that she misses doing these days — casually walking in St. Vital Park or Assiniboine Park, going to live theatre with the many friends she still has from university days, or eating at Winnipeg’s many restaurants.

“Enjoying the little things,” she said. “Those are the things we’re missing but they’ll come back.”

The distancing measures have also prevented visits with her father-in-law. She hasn’t seen him since February.

“So that’s that’s one thing I’m looking forward to, as well,” Siragusa said.

Lanette poses with her family, whom she calls her rock of stability. From left, her husband Stino, daughter Amanda, Siragusa, son Austin and other son Jared. (Submitted by Lanette Siragusa)

But there is also a lot the pandemic hasn’t taken away. 

“I’ve got pretty simple pleasures in life that I don’t have to give up. That’s spending time with the people that I care about,” she said, citing her 25-year marriage and three kids — aged 18, 20 and 22 — as her rock of stability.

“So that, and contributing at work to make a positive difference however I can.”

That’s the doctrine that drives her, and the one that guided her into the nursing profession from the start.

“My dad always used to say to me, growing up, that whatever you do in your life, make sure you do something that contributes to the world in a positive way,” she said.

“Nursing seemed to be a good fit, and as soon as I took my first course I felt like, yeah this is exactly where I want to be.”

She graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1995 and spent her first 12 years in the profession working in labour and delivery, and in high-risk obstetrics. She’s been a research nurse, taught clinical students at the U of M, worked in the community for the non-profit charity Victorian Order of Nurses, and acquired her masters of nursing.

For the past decade she’s been on the administration side, and is currently pursuing her doctorate degree in health and social sciences through Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“I have had such a nice range of opportunities and a better understanding of all the ways that nursing can contribute,” Siragusa said. 

It’s also conditioned her for the 12-to-14-hour days she’s facing now. Each one starts around 7:30 a.m. and is filled with meetings and briefings, providing the daily news update and catching up on email.

“There’s certain moments in life where you just have to give it your all,” she said.

“And we’re prepared to do that.”

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