Dr. Brent Roussin’s heart is stamped with a bison: he’s a Manitoban who has devoted his career to this province.
But there is one place where he strays from home. When it comes to sports, he is a devoted fan of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and the NFL’s Detroit Lions.
“I’ll wear a Habs jersey there,” he said about Canadiens games at the Jets’ arena in Winnipeg.
As a kid, he fell in love with Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur. Though the Flower has long since retired, Roussin’s allegiance to the Habs has not.
His 11-year-old son is even named Guy.
As for the Lions, Roussin was gripped by one of the greatest running backs ever, Barry Sanders.
Fortunately Roussin’s 15-year-old daughter dodged getting the name Barry.
“Yeah, that wouldn’t have worked out too well,” Roussin said with a laugh.
However, Breanna does appear to have football in the blood, having played flag with an under-16 girls team.
Roussin also played in high school, as a defensive back covering receivers and picking off passes.
“But I was about like 135 pounds, so I wasn’t much of a force,” he said.
Though he might not have stood out then, he does now. And he wields much more clout.
As Manitoba’s chief public health officer — the province’s top doctor — he has become a familiar face in the province’s defence against COVID-19.
Roussin, 45, has appeared daily with Lanette Siragusa to give the public the latest update. They have drawn effusive praise from Winnipeg’s mayor and Manitoba’s premier for their straightforward and clear answers in their daily briefings, and doing it with a calming presence.
“It’s great to work beside her,” he said about Siragusa, chief nursing officer for Manitoba Shared Health.
“She has detailed knowledge of the entire health-care system and is a tremendous problem solver.”
Roussin’s repeated messages have encouraged people to avoid panic and to seek out credible information, rather than rumours and hyperbole on social media.
“It’s the knowledge that will get us through. It’s the actions that will get us through,” he has said, urging people to continue staying home as much as possible.
“We are not helpless but we cannot loosen up our strategies.”
He and Siragusa have faced the TV cameras inside Room 68 at the Manitoba Legislative Building every day but two since March 12.
That has given them a celebrity status not typically thrust upon health-care officials. Their images have been turned into memes and even given Lego treatments.
“And my Twitter account has rapidly grown,” Roussin said.
It’s a strange feeling but the big perk is that public health is also in the spotlight, he said. That means messages of prevention and overall health are being heard by more people.
“We’re hoping that continues long after we work our way through this, and when we deal with other public health issues, people will keep paying attention to those messages.”
He hopes to see immunization rates go up and thinks some current practices will carry on, with people washing more and being more aware of physical distancing.
“I really think that in the foreseeable, it’s going to change a number of the things that we do,” Roussin said.
Born and raised in Winnipeg and a Maples Collegiate grad, Roussin received his medical degree from the University of Manitoba in 2000, then a law degree in 2009, and finally his master’s in public health in 2011.
“The learning process is going to be lifelong for me, for sure. I wanted to be a physician for as far back as I can remember and as I started practising, I started learning about the social determinants of health and the intersection of medicine and the law,” he said.
Roussin worked with the federal First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and was a medical officer of health for northern Manitoba. He made many connections with northern community leaders, which he has maintained.
“I think it’s really translated well into this role, especially at times like this,” he said, because he’s aware of the unique challenges COVID-19 poses for Manitoba’s Indigenous population.
Roussin was appointed chief public health officer in June 2019, a job that comes with the authority to make orders that protect and promote the health of Manitobans. It also requires him to report to the health minister on important issues and to guide public health policy.
“You walk into a role like this with your eyes wide open for circumstances like this one we’re going through now,” he said.
“During a pandemic, there’s not a lot of downtime that comes.”
Dr. Michael Isaac, medical officer of health for the Northern Health Region in Manitoba, who has known Roussin for a decade, said he is the perfect person to lead the coronavirus charge.
“He has a law degree, which really helps in times like this, when we’re readjusting legislation and thinking about public health measures that need to be enforced. Not many physicians have that background and Brent does,” he said
The fact Roussin has only taken two days off in more than five weeks doesn’t surprise Isaac one bit.
“Working seven days a week is not new for Brent, but somehow he’s able to stay balanced,” Isaac said.
Remarkably, Roussin still cracks jokes and quotes movie lines to break up tension, he said.
“I think it helps to keep him fresh for the day-to-day grind that this job is right now.”
Not many people have been through this type of thing. This is one of the biggest health threats of our generation– Dr. Brent Roussin
Roussin still tries to see his family as much as possible, even if it’s just for a sit-down dinner and evening workout before he starts all over again the next morning.
“We try to make sure we’re staying connected and that we’re staying healthy, as well,” he said.
The messages Roussin preaches every day to the public are tough on his own family.
His kids are active and typically engaged in a lot of sports, “so this has been quite a change for them,” he said.
“But they’re staying connected with friends virtually and with family as well. They’re pretty resilient.”
That’s a word he also uses to describe most Manitobans as well, applauding them for how they’ve adapted.
“I think I’m going to remember how we all came together for this, within the health-care system, and how we as Manitobans rallied,” he said.
“Not many people have been through this type of thing. This is one of the biggest health threats of our generation.”
When it’s over, he’s looking forward to long stretches of uninterrupted time with his wife, to whom he’s been married for 22 years — and to long stretches of horizon.
“One of the most recent things that I picked up is flying. I’m a student pilot and I was able to fly solo a number of times, but I haven’t been able to do that recently,” he said.
“I’m going to enjoy getting back to that.”
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