Paying it forward with public service

Community News & Features May 12, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Dr-Eileen-de-VillaDr. Eileen de Villa as City of Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health

By Veronica C. Silva

Not everyone is born and raised in a life of bliss and blessings. Life is simply not fair. But that does not necessarily mean all this abundance can be limited to the one percent.

In Toronto, in the midst of the growing Filipino community, there are souls that make it their mission in life to give back what they have received by paying it forward. In the case of Toronto’s new Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, she’s giving back to the Toronto community through public service.

Public service and giving back to the community is in the DNA of Dr. Eileen de Villa. She is the daughter of community leaders who have also given themselves to the Filipino community in Toronto.

Dr. Guillermo de Villa Jr. was one of the first Filipino obstetrician-gynecologists in Toronto. He was also one of the key community leaders who laid the groundwork for what is now the Filipino Centre Toronto, one of the oldest Filipino community associations in Toronto.

On the FCT website, Dr. Guillermo de Villa is listed as the chairman of the first FCT board. In honour of de Villa, who passed away in 2006, the FCT holds a golf fundraising tournament for the organisation’s health and wellness program.

The family matriarch, Dr. Maria de Villa, still practices as a cardiologist.

Prior to holding the medical officer post last March, Eileen de Villa was Medical Officer of Health and Associate Medical Officer of Health for Peel Region.

She told The Philippine Reporter that the philosophy in their family is based on the basic principle “To whom much is given, then much is expected.”

“Their (parents) teaching was we were very fortunate in many, many ways … so, the expectation is that when you’re in a position where you’re in a great degree of fortune, we should be able to give back to our community,” said Dr. de Villa.

She said it’s more of her parents’ active involvement and service to the community, more than the medical practice, that has had a major influence in her career decisions.

“My dad, in particular, was very active in the Filipino community. He had a strong sense of community. It’s more that – service to community – more so than medicine itself that I followed through my parents and that was their major influence on me. … There was no pressure on me from my parents to become a doctor,” said Dr. de Villa, who added that she has a sibling who is not in the health profession.

Dr. de Villa said it took a series of events in her life that led her to go into the health care practice. Similar to university students, she said she was interested in “lots of things” after completing her undergraduate degree. What was common among these interests is a longing to do something meaningful and making the world better.

No doubt, she said she was also interested in health or medicine. But it had to take a student internship opportunity in a United Nations organization that made her realize opportunities in international or global health.

This first experience in international health got her focused on public health. Dr. de Villa’s area of expertise is public health and preventive medicine.

Challenges of big and diverse city

As a municipal function, public health is mainly concerned with the health of the population at the community level.

“Our focus is having people start healthy and stay healthy. … The role of public health is to improve the health status of the population. The idea is how do we make sure that our population has what it needs to start life healthy and to stay that way for as as long as possible,” said Dr. de Villa.

As medical officer of health of the biggest city in Canada, Dr. de Villa is tasked with the public health welfare of almost three million Torontonians.

But it is not just the size of the population that is challenging. Toronto is one of the most diverse population with about half having been born outside of Canada.

Dr. de Villa said from her experience in international health and her Filipino heritage, she can draw inspirations to help her with her new role.

In the area of mental health, for example, she noted that the Filipinos’ emphasis on extended families can help address some mental health issues.

She said extended families is where we in the western world, particularly Canada, can learn from.

“When you have a nice relationship with members of your extended family, you have a social support network. That plays a lot towards mental and physical health as well. When you know you have people to turn to who support you, that prevents you from getting sick. That’s good for maintaining good health,” she said.

As head of the largest public health organization in the country, Dr. Eileen is not only excited about working in the municipality where she lives. She is also excited about opportunities in her work to influence public health practices beyond the Greater Toronto Area.

“It is special for me to be able to serve and work for the city in which I live; that makes a big difference to me,” she said. “But I also see (that) with the size of the organization, there are also great opportunities to do great things for the people of Toronto — in terms of improving their health status and reducing disparities in health status, and to help influence public health practice, not just in Toronto but beyond.

“Because as the largest local agency in the country, we are often looked on by other public health units that don’t have the critical mass and size that we have. It’s a big responsibility that we have, but it presents great opportunities for us. … To the extent that we can advance public health in Toronto, we can also advance public health practice beyond Toronto.”

As the top health officer in the municipality, Dr. de Villa is one of the top public servants in the municipality that is of Filipino descent.

To fellow Filipinos, whose ranks continue to grow almost each year, Dr. Eileen offers these encouraging words: “Continue to bring the richness of our Filipino heritage and use that to enrich the fabric of this already great city. We have much to contribute as a community. I ask my fellow Filipinos to bring the very best of what they have to offer to enrich all the facets of life in this great city.”

Born in the United States, Dr. de Villa studied nursery in the Philippines before moving to Toronto at a very young age. She did all her schooling in Toronto – from kindergarten to graduate school. She received her medical and public health training from the University of Toronto where she was also a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Dr. de Villa also has a master’s degree in Health Science, a master’s in Business Administration and a certificate in Health Law. She is certified by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in public health and preventative medicine.

Her appointment by Toronto’s Board of Health was announced in late January, but she assumed her post only in late March.