Deena Hinshaw: The making of an unlikely folk hero

"My undergraduate studies [at Augustana] gave me the technical foundation I needed for medical school, as well as a cross-disciplinary experience that taught me to think about issues from many perspectives and use different approaches to problem-solving," says Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw.

Tia Lalani - 07 May 2020

Over the last several months, the University of Alberta has had morning COVID-19 Update Meetings of the Deans and Senior University Administrators. President Turpin has asked each Dean to share a good news story from their faculty at these meetings. Augustana Dean Demetres Tryphonopoulos didn't hesitate to share the story of an Augustana alumna-Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw ('96)-who demonstrates what we've been teaching at Augustana all along.

"Dr. Hinshaw is a special example (though not the only) of the kind of exemplary individuals and professionals that the University of Alberta continues to educate and graduate," Dean Tryphonopoulos shared. "People trained at Augustana and at the University of Alberta make a difference in the life of the province, nation and indeed, the entire world."

Read more about Dr. Hinshaw's daily life, her expertise and her formative years at Augustana and the University of Alberta below.


Before she was Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Deena Hinshaw impressed her medical professors with her quiet thoughtfulness, commitment and empathy for patients. "Like most people who go into medicine, it's with a hope to make a difference," she said. (Photo: Supplied)

A day in the life of Alberta's chief medical officer is not for the faint of heart.

Since the arrival of COVID-19, Deena Hinshaw has been rising at 5 a.m. to prepare for her hectic day, spending a few minutes with her two elementary-aged kids "if she can" before heading off to work around 7.

Then it's back-to-back meetings all day, receiving updates on the spread of the coronavirus and weighing new health measures to "flatten the curve" in the province.

If she has a few minutes to spare, she catches up on email while her team pulls together everything she needs for the daily 3:30 press briefing.

When she's done with the media, her "second shift" begins.

"That's when I actually sit down and do the policy work, reviewing the documents and guidelines, making sure that I am thinking through the implications of (health measures) we're about to propose," she said.

"I get home somewhere between eight and nine at night and sometimes see my kids before they go to bed.

"I often tell them, 'I couldn't do this without you guys being patient with me,' and when I do get to see them, they give me hugs."

While Hinshaw is leading the charge for Alberta Health, putting in at least one 12-hour day on weekends, she considers herself lucky to have support on the home front.

"My husband is working from home, so he has taken on household chores and the kids, and my mother, who lives with us part-time, has also been an amazing support through all of this."

Guiding Alberta through the COVID-19 pandemic is exhausting-there's no getting around that. But Hinshaw is also acutely aware of the significance of the moment. Although she could never have seen it coming, she spent years preparing for just this scenario.

"Like most people who go into medicine, it's with a hope to make a difference," she said.

Life as a celebrity

What the quiet and thoughtful public health expert never bargained for is the intense, daily media spotlight, along with the celebrity status that was never supposed to be part of the job.

Hinshaw has been widely commended for her calm and measured delivery in press briefings, her solid command of the pandemic response and genuine expressions of empathy for those suffering from the disease.

T-shirts and outfits she's worn have sold out, including the Point Grey Periodic Table dress she wore to her March 17 briefing. A caricature of her posted on Twitter by Edmonton artist Laurel Hawkswell went viral.

On April 17, the 30-foot long plesiosaur cast that hangs in the U of A's Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science was christened "Dr. Deeno Hinshaw" after a contest to name the ancient marine animal.

"It's certainly not something that I expected to be dealing with," she said. "I'm just doing my job to the best of my ability, making sure I'm giving people the best information so they can make the best decisions.

"I'm grateful that what I have to offer is resonating with people, and I always tell my team they should feel part of any kudos given to me.

"But what's most important right now is the response to the virus. It's why I haven't been doing many of these interviews. My time is scarce and I need to focus it on where it makes the most difference."

She only agreed to speak with Folio because of her deep roots at the U of A, she said, where she earned three degrees and is a clinical professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

The early years

Hinshaw was raised in the central Alberta town of Sylvan Lake in a third-generation farming family that values a strong work ethic and connection to community, where people "act with integrity and do their part," she said.

"My upbringing was, in many ways, privileged. I had a good education, a really stable upbringing and relatively large extended family who helped me keep my feet on the ground.

"I'm mindful that not everyone comes from that same perspective-just because I have a particular view on something, it doesn't make it the only view. That's been a real touchstone for me as I've taken on this job-feeling the responsibility to care for all Albertans no matter what background they have, no matter where they come from."

She credits the U of A's Augustana Campus in Camrose-formerly Augustana College-with giving her a broad liberal arts education along with her major in chemistry and biology.

"It really was a fantastic experience, very formative," she said. "I had the opportunity to take courses in religion, drama, music and sports, and was on their cross-country ski team.

"I made great friends, mentors and teachers who really emphasized well-roundedness and being a whole person. I saw my education as a way of observing the larger population."

Augustana was also where she started thinking about ways to keep that larger population healthy.

"As a young person, I was interested in health care in general, and thinking about prevention, alternative medicines and wellness training … that's what I was always really passionate about."


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