From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
Joan O’Leary was well-known to many people in the city for her dedication to health care and education. She was born 12 miles outside of Killarney, Ireland and spent four years studying nursing at the Temperance Hospital in London, England. While at school she studied midwifery which she said was invaluable in public health work.
Joan O’Leary moved to Canada around 1953. All of her time working in the nursing field was spent in Ontario. She spent two years in Fort William, five years in Port Arthur and three years in Toronto. It was during her time in Toronto that she earned a Bachelor's degree in nursing.
In 1965, Joan moved to Sault Ste. Marie and began working as the Algoma Health Unit’s Director of Nursing.
When she started her new job, there were only six nurses and the department didn’t get classified as a health unit until 1968. Over the years she expanded the territory of the Health Unit to encompass Michipicoten, Prince Township and extended along the highway to Blind River.
In 1974, the area north of the Sault up to Montreal River was added along with the North Shore to Blind River reaching to include Spanish as well. Expansion continued in 1978 when Elliot Lake was added to the Health Unit.
The Health Unit offered prenatal and maternity and child programs in addition to child immunization clinics. In 1974, they started family planning clinics once the province specified it was a health service that could be provided. They would see approximately 450 individuals a year, mostly teenage girls.
Over the years new programs were added to the Health Unit.
In 1977, an essential service called Genetic Counselling was added. This testing/counselling would be done if an individual, or members of their family, were diagnosed with conditions/diseases that were genetic in nature.
It provided a baseline for family members to determine if they were also at risk for certain conditions and could determine what preventative measures could be taken. In addition to counselling, clinical work like blood tests were provided.
Algoma Health Unit facilitated postpartum groups, parenting groups as well as other mental health counselling but always emphasized the importance of teaching. Joan O’Leary was quoted as saying, “We’ll continue to visit people with first babies, and those with problems, but would like to put the emphasis on teaching. If people know what to expect, and what’s normal, they can cope with it”.
Joan O’Leary retired in February of 1990 from her position at the Algoma Health Unit. According to the SAH website, Joan O’Leary is listed as the 1988 recipient of the Dr. William Hutchinson Award. This award ‘recognizes distinguished contributions to health services in Sault Ste. Marie and the District of Algoma’. In addition to her 25 years of service at the Algoma Health Unit, Joan O’Leary also was a member of the Sexual Abuse Council, Algoma District Health Council and was appointed by the Ministry of Health to the Northern Human Resources Committee.
For over 25 years Joan O’Leary provided not just health care but education to countless Algoma residents.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.