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Five decades on, the words remain blunt and cruel.
Joy Richards was an aspiring physician and the only young woman in her Grade 11 physics class in Oshawa, Ont. when the female teacher said: "You'll never be a doctor because you're a girl and your father is not a doctor."
Absurd today; a prevailing mindset in the 1970s.
"I remember coming home from that conversation and being absolutely defeated," Joy recalls.
Joy's mother, Elsie Bright, had some advice. She suggested her only child become a nurse, but go the less conventional route of the time and get a university degree rather than a two-year college diploma.
It was a pivotal point for Joy, who followed that path – and branched off onto several of her own – over the course of a career that has included bedside nursing, teaching, pharmaceutical sales, managing and senior executive positions. She has worked with the most vulnerable – AIDS patients and geriatrics – been a Chief Nursing Executive during SARS and an organizational lead in long-term care homes at the outset of COVID-19.
Along the way, Joy has served as a mentor to dozens and an inspiration to scores more. She has collected individual and team awards at the local, provincial, national and international level, including a "Distinguished Alumnus Award" from the University of Toronto, an Ontario Hospital Association prize for excellence in nursing leadership and induction as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing.
She has a B.Sc. in nursing, two master's degrees – one in nursing, the other in human and organizational systems – and defied her teacher of all those years ago by becoming Dr. Joy Richards, earning a PhD in human and organizational development with a dissertation on how nursing leaders develop courage.
"I love being a nurse. I can't imagine being anything else," says Joy, who will retire on Friday, Sept. 15 after a 43-year career, the final dozen years at UHN. “For me, there's this sacredness that comes with being present with a patient 24/7 during times of great happiness, when they deliver a baby, or at the end of life when dealing with great loss, particularly for patients and families.
"And often, you're the one who makes the difference as communicator, as comforter, as the glue that holds everything together. That's the gift of being a nurse."
Many see Joy as a gift to the nursing profession and the broader health care sector. Compassionate, enthusiastic and visionary are just a few of the adjectives used to describe her. A leader focused on finding solutions and willing to challenge the status quo on behalf of patients is her legacy.
"Joy has the ability to bring people together," says Pam Hubley, UHN's Chief Nursing Executive, who succeeded Joy in that position and has long considered her a mentor and confidante.
Pam was Associate Chief of Nursing Practice at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) when she met Joy, who was speaking about the future of nursing at a conference. Over the years, they connected regularly at Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN) and Canadian nursing leadership events.
"Joy has always been an advocate for patients, a defender of nursing and a courageous, forward-looking health care leader," Pam says. "UHN was fortunate to have Joy as the Chief Nurse Executive for her 10-year run, and despite the challenges we are in a good place moving forward because of her."
Self-described as "a bit of a misfit" and "an accidental leader," Joy had a well-established track record as a nursing leader when she joined UHN in 2011 as Vice President (VP), Health Professions and Chief Nursing Executive. She had held similar roles at Montreal's Jewish Hospital of Hope, Baycrest Health Sciences Centre and the Scarborough Hospital after starting her career at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where she cared for acute, chronic and palliative patients and was Nurse Manager of its first AIDS unit.
"Joy has been both an experienced leader and a change agent at UHN," says President & CEO Dr. Kevin Smith. "She always helped to find innovative solutions to problems and opportunities.
"Joy leaves behind a lasting legacy of exceptional service, scholarship, and mentorship that has made a real difference at UHN and in our system."
At UHN, Joy also took on roles as VP Patient Experience and, since last year, VP Health Education Development & Executive-in-Residence at the Michener Institute of Education at UHN, where she has led the development of innovative solutions to the health human resources crisis.
"At Michener, Joy has initiated and motivated many robust conversations with her extensive network exploring, as Joy puts it, the 'art of the possible,'" says Dr. Harvey Weingarten, Principal at Michener. "These conversations have led to an increased understanding of the health human resource needs in a host of clinical environments and what Michener could do to address them."
Joy's vision as UHN's VP of Patient Experience was for patients to be considered partners in their care, have access to their charts and sit on committees to help guide teams in project work and strategy. Thanks in large part to her tenacity and the commitment and hard work of teams who thrived under her leadership, those goals were realized with such things as expansion of the UHN Patient Partner Program, the introduction of myUHN Patient Portal and the establishment of a UHN Patient Declaration of Values.
"Joy is an inspiring leader who led the portfolio with her values front and centre," says Laura Williams, UHN's Senior Director of Patient Experience and Engagement. "Under her leadership, Joy prioritized our work to focus on meaningful engagement and co-creating a health system that was all about partnership, collaboration, caring and kindness."
Pam Breese, a longtime UHN Patient Partner who also served as a sponsor of the Patient Declaration of Values, calls Joy "an unwavering supporter and advisor" who could always be counted on “for her honesty, her encouragement and her heart.
"Joy is truly one-of-a-kind – as a leader and a mentor, and as a human being. There is simply no better role model."
In the early days of the pandemic, Joy, in her role as UHN's Chief Nurse, and Dr. Brian Hodges, as Chief Physician, were tapped to lead the organization's support of long-term care centres (LTCs).
It began with members of TeamUHN helping meet basic of needs – feeding, bathing and toileting of residents – at a pair of downtown Toronto LTCs but quickly expanded. All told, UHN partnered with 15 homes across the city, providing on-going weekly support and consultation through UHN Infection Prevention and Control, as well as swabbing and testing. Eventually, teams from UHN and other hospitals joined forces with Toronto Public Health, city staff and LTCs to launch a vaccination blitz.
Joy considers the work with LTCs during the pandemic one of her career highlights, in part because it was so much driven by people working together to accomplish a goal and make an impact.
Dr. Hodges calls Joy "a compassionate, empathic and insightful leader," adding that working with her in their roles as Chief Physician and Chief Nurse was "one of the greatest pleasures of the last decade.
"Particularly during the pandemic, in the most difficult days, Joy was always a source of hope and inspiration and a force for just getting things done," he says.
Gillian Howard, a longtime friend who frequently hikes with Joy, calls her "an absolutely fierce proponent of nursing as a profession and someone whose concern for her colleagues is paramount."
Gillian, who retired in March after 20 years as UHN's Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications, recalls that during the early days of the pandemic Joy worked alongside nurses in UHN's COVID units.
"She was there for them," Gill says. "That's the kind of leader she is."
Joy has long been a proponent of collaboration among health professions.
"It takes more than a nurse, more than a physician to deliver good care," she says. "It's about knowing and valuing what other professions bring to the care circle, and how that can benefit the patient."
Nurse practitioner Salima Ladak, Pain Quality Lead in the Department of Anesthesia & Pain Management at Toronto General Hospital, says as a leader “Joy created space and opportunities for interprofessional collaboration, which made a positive impact to programs and team-based patient care.
"Her consistent support of Patient Experience, and related programs, made a positive contribution to UHN patient outcomes, and one key area this remains palpable is pain management."
Joy sees herself as "a scholar-practitioner," someone always looking at the science of patient care. That was central to her leadership at Baycrest of the development, implementation and evaluation of a renewal project known as "Reconnecting to Care," which included creating of a strategic plan for nursing that saw her interview every nurse and personal support worker over the course of six months.
During Joy's tenure as VP Health Professions at UHN, the CAP (Collaborative Academic Practice) Innovation Fellowship Program was expanded. Built on the philosophy that clinicians providing direct patient care know how best to improve it, the program offers health professionals an opportunity to lead a quality improvement project aligned with the strategic priorities of their unit.
"Joy always talks about the importance of interprofessional care for our patients and teams," says Karen Martin, CAP's Executive Director of Nursing and Health Professions Practice at UHN. "She believes it takes different professionals to weave the perfect tapestry of care needed for patients."
Karen, a social worker, says "nothing exemplifies Joy's valuing of the voice of health professions more" than her establishment of UHN's Professional Advisory Committee. Comprised of representative physician and health profession roles, it meets regularly to focus UHN on the quality of interprofessional patient care delivery.
Mentorship has always been important to Joy. Right now, she meets regularly with 60 people – mostly women and predominantly in groups, including one that dates back more than a decade – over meals or via MS Teams to discuss challenges in health care, review books or just kick around ideas.
"I get such energy out of that," she says. "It feeds my soul."
The feeling is mutual among those who are part of Joy's vast mentorship circle.
"Joy ignites her passion for nursing in you," says registered nurse Jessica Lam, who has been at UHN for 12 years and is now a patient safety and quality improvement specialist with Quality, Safety and Clinical Adoption.
'She has the ability to recharge your batteries'
"She's your biggest cheerleader and will be your pick-me-up when you are looking for advice and want her to share her wisdom," says Jessica, who has been part of a mentorship group with Joy for seven years. "Most importantly, she carves time to mentor those around her – whether you are a new graduate nurse, nurse in a new role, or a seasoned nurse."
Like so much of Joy's career, mentorship goes beyond nursing to include other health professions. She was also often a safe place and confidante for physicians as well as leaders – women and men – looking for help to solve problems or discuss ideas.
Talya Wolff, a speech-language pathologist by profession, met Joy more than a decade ago when the two were part of an initial group looking at bringing a new health information system to UHN. Despite their different clinical backgrounds, Talya says they bonded and forged a mentor-mentee relationship over the fact that both saw patients and patient safety as being at the core of what they do.
"Anytime you meet with her, she has the ability to recharge your batteries in such a way that you feel so uplifted, inspired and motivated," says Talya, Senior Manager of Patient Services and Experience in UHN's Joint Department of Medical Imaging and Laboratory Medicine Program.
Joy plans to continue her mentorship after leaving UHN. Little wonder. It's part of her DNA, right there alongside compassion and her belief in bringing people together to talk about the art of the possible.
"To me, it's the relationships that are most important, not the titles, or power or influence," she says. "It's making a difference to one person – a patient, a patient's family, a nurse, a colleague, a friend.
"That, to me, is why I'm here. That's my purpose."