As a young girl growing up in St. Lucia, Joan Lesmond harboured dreams of becoming the island’s Prime Minister.
It was, however, in the health care sector that she excelled after migrating to Toronto in 1970. Three years ago, Dr. Lesmond was the only Black to be recognized with a Canadian Nursing Association centennial award honouring Canada’s Top 100 registered nurses.
The respected leader and passionate advocate passed away last Friday at age 59 after being diagnosed with cancer in May. Prior to becoming ill, she was executive director of community engagement at St. Elizabeth Healthcare Foundation where she successfully forged community partnerships and engagements in the areas of service delivery, international consulting and the chronic disease self-management program.
Regional Senior Judge Gregory Regis, who was a neighbour of the deceased in Dennery, St. Lucia, is among a large community of friends, family and colleagues mourning the death of Lesmond who had a profound impact on the nursing profession and on community-based health care initiatives.
“Joan was very gregarious and active growing up in the village,” said Regis. “She was also bright and I was not surprised to see her reach lofty professional heights in Canada. I was very impressed with the way she drove the agenda of equity of fairness in ensuring that nurses, especially those of colour, received their due. That’s her legacy as a nursing leader.
“She also had a big heart and could be called on at any time to respond to a need. Just before she fell ill, we were having conversations about what we could do to help the elderly back in St. Lucia. That was a concern of hers and she wanted to lend her expertise.”
Lesmond held several high profile positions in the health care industry, ranging from frontline nursing practice to progressive management and senior leadership roles.
As chair of the Ontario Caregiver Coalition, she challenged the disproportionate burden of care on women and as president of the Association of Ontario Health Centres, she ensured the examination of social determinants of health and promoted the importance of anti-oppression frameworks. And as an educator at Ryerson University, Lesmond taught students the equal importance of quality of care, ethics and community engagement.
As the face of AIDS evolved over the years, Lesmond – as chief nursing executive and director of professional practice – led the re-design of Casey House’s “Model of Care” to be more supportive and responsive to women from diverse communities and she often offered indispensable support to Black women afflicted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
She volunteered in South Africa with women and girls living with HIV/AIDS and became active in policy development for the South African Network of Nurses and Midwives which was launched in May 2001.
A past president of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO) and chair of Regent Park Community Health Centre, Lesmond held a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing, a Masters in Community Health and a Doctorate in Health Policy and Health Education with a focus on cultural competency in marginalized communities. She was the RNAO president for two years up until April 2006.
“During her tenure, she was a forceful advocate for the country’s health care system and of the need for it to remain publicly funded and not-for-profit,” the organization said in a release on its website. “She was also a passionate believer in the power of nurses’ knowledge and of their contribution towards shaping the future of health care.”
Lesmond was a director of Women’s College Hospital, a board member of Health Force Ontario, a director of the Hospital Association of Ontario and a founding board member of Hospice Palliative Care Ontario (HPCO).
“As a member of the board, Joan was a partner who guided us, challenged us and encouraged us to be better and more,” said HPCO board chair Joan Crean. “We will miss her wonderful spirit. But most of all, we will miss her wisdom.”
Lesmond also instructed Baccalaureate students at Ryerson and mentored staff at Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Clinic that provides primary health care to Black and other visible minority women.
“Joan was an exceptional individual who always placed the needs of others ahead of her own,” said friend and former Ontario Minister Mary Anne Chambers. “She also had demonstrated very clearly that she was an extremely capable and committed public servant.”
Four years ago, Lesmond declined the opportunity to run for the Scarborough East seat Chambers vacated because one of her brothers was diagnosed with terminal cancer in New York and she had embraced the caregiver responsibility.
Lesmond was seriously considering becoming a Liberal candidate for the October 6 provincial elections when she became ill.
“How ironic that she should be taken away from us at this time,” said Chambers.
Last year, Lesmond was among six St. Lucian nationals residing in Canada recognized with the island’s Governor-General Homecoming Awards at the inaugural Diaspora Reunion.
She was also honoured for her inspiring work to ensure women’s issues are at the forefront of health care policy and delivery with a 2011 YWCA Woman of Distinction Health and Leadership award that she dedicated to her late aunt Rosenna Dash from whom she said she inherited every asset that qualifies her as a woman of distinction.
Unable to attend last May’s gala because of illness, the award was presented to her at Sunnybrook Health Science Centre where she was a patient before being transferred to St. John’s Rehab Hospital.
Lesmond, who is survived by her husband Elton and son Kelly, was a member of the Hurricane Tomas Relief Committee assembled to mobilize financial and material support after the storm ravaged St. Lucia last October, resulting in seven deaths.
One of 10 children, she was predeceased by brothers Remy, who was a St. Lucia government cabinet minister, and Peter and Urban who both died of cancer in New York.
The funeral to celebrate her life takes place today at St. Bernadette’s Roman Catholic Church, 21 Bayly St. E. in Ajax, starting at 10.30 a.m.