Six months into her tenure as executive director of the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC), Lisa Westaway was faced with the unprecedented challenge of navigating a global pandemic.
The next year, KMHC received the best possible accreditation from Accreditation Canada under Westaway’s leadership. A few months later, she drew community criticism after taking a family trip to Mexico and contracting COVID-19 at the height of the Omicron wave. Last summer, she came under fire after KMHC was accused of elder neglect, outraging the community and putting its practices into question.
It’s safe to say that since joining the hospital in 2019, Westaway’s time hasn’t been short of challenges.
Now, after nearly three-and-a-half years at KMHC, Westaway is preparing to join Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), where she will work as the Ontario Regional Executive of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch.
“I was offered a really interesting position, where I could use my strengths to improve health outcomes of many First Nation communities, so I’m grateful to have that opportunity,” explained Westaway.
She acknowledged that the difficulties of the past few years have been felt by the community.
“I can’t deny that there were some very, very difficult moments,” she said. “And there were difficult decisions we as a task force had to make. And decisions that had to be made at the hospital as well. But difficult moments and challenges are when we grow as people, as a community, and as an organization.”
Lloyd Phillips, director of public safety at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), worked closely with Westaway on the Kahnawake COVID-19 Task Force that long-managed the community’s pandemic response.
“With her skills and knowledge of healthcare, and the contacts she had within the healthcare field, she was really invaluable to the task force,” said Phillips. “She was a vital component, and we complimented each other great in terms of our respective responsibilities.”
With differing opinions surrounding the pandemic swirling in the community, many Kahnawa’kehró:non were dissatisfied with some aspects of Westaway’s leadership.
In light of this, when news broke that Westaway made a decision to go on a family vacation in late-December 2021, as the Omicron variant neared its peak, she attracted the ire of many in the community. She contracted COVID-19 during her vacation and was forced to stay in Mexico while she recovered. At the time, she explained that the decision had been difficult and was taken after measured consideration of the risks for her family and community after nearly two years of an intense schedule.
Many community members felt that the decision to leave was hypocritical, given that advice from the task force was to avoid travel if possible.
“Everybody has a life to live, and sometimes you need that time with your family,” said Phillips of the incident. “It was a very emotional time for everybody. And unfortunately she became a target. But I could never fault anybody for putting their family first.”
Westaway was also the face of the hospital as allegations of elder neglect at the long-term care facility came to light last year. Though the hospital administration previously promised community concerns would be dealt with, at least one community member that spoke with The Eastern Door at the time saw very little change. For some, this represents a lack of accountability that leaves a negative impression of Westaway’s time in charge.
Westaway considers the experiences of the past few years to be opportunities for growth.
“All of those moments, difficult or not, were learning opportunities, and we’re all better for it,” she said. “I would say that my whole experience was positive no matter the situation, because it was the best show of resilience and a community coming together for the greater good.”
Donna McComber was president of the Kateri Memorial Foundation when Westaway began her tenure. She said that many much-needed updates and programs were implemented at KMHC during Westaway’s time at the hospital.
“We had worked with her on the electronic implementation, and how that could make finding a patient’s records simpler and quicker,” said McComber.
“There were many things, like the expansion of pediatrics, and OB/GYN, and adding more involvement for midwifery, the fact that she was able to bring in four family doctors. You just have to look at the communities around us; we have a shortage of doctors not just in our community but in the country. So that should not be taken lightly.”
Westaway will stay on as executive director of KMHC until April 3, and she explained that she would be actively involved in the process of recruiting a successor to fill her shoes. Phillips hopes that it will be someone who has the passion to continue making improvements at the KMHC.
“I’m certainly hoping that we get somebody in there who has a similar drive as Lisa had, and hopefully they’ll take the roadmap we have, and implement it,” he said. “Lisa set the groundwork, and now it’s just a matter of implementing it to see it to fruition.”
Phillips also said that Westaway’s new role with ISC will require strong leadership.
“Looking after First Nations health for an entire province is a major responsibility. It’s a very prestigious position,” he noted.
As she prepares to say goodbye to KMHC, Westaway looks back on her time fondly.
“Being a part of the hospital has been an experience I will cherish,” she said. “I’m honoured by the work that was done here, working with a top-notch team of healthcare professionals and focusing on continuous improvement of health and well-being. I really am thankful for the last three and a half years, and for what the hospital and community has been able to achieve.”