Female, black and an immigrant: Yvette Bonny’s triumphant triad


Yvette Bonny has forged a life, a story… an unshakable reputation based on an exceptional career. And it’s no wonder: being the first doctor to perform a bone marrow transplant in Quebec, especially on a child, is beyond impressive. However, she didn’t achieve this credibility without effort. This is a portrayal of a woman who is a model of intellect, compassion, and above all, humanity.

Madame Bonny, at 85 years old, are you aware of the energy you radiate?

I’ve always been like this! When we have birthday dinners at the residence, I’m the one who goes around to each table, without exception, to say hello to everyone. I love people. I thrive on human contact. That’s what gives me the most strength and vitality. And as I get older, I feel even more free to be who I am, without holding back. I talk to everyone, men, and women alike, it makes no difference to me. I’ve worked for so long in a male-dominated environment. I’m comfortable with everyone.

Where does it come from, your parents?

I’m not sure. I don’t think so, because my mother always used to say, “I must have dropped Yvette. She’s such a tomboy.” I laugh about it now, but I heard her say it many times. I have to admit, I often challenged conventional norms. There was nothing I wouldn’t try. I always came home later than allowed; the days just weren’t long enough for me. I spent time with my friends, doing volunteer work among other things. I even served as the doctor for my Girl Guide group in the scouts. But “proper girls” weren’t supposed to come home late. So, naturally, I got in some trouble for that! (laughs)

Was it this disposition that drove you so far?

Definitely. It was innate in me. At the age of 6, I told my parents that I wanted to be a doctor, and I never wavered from that goal. I studied with the Nuns. In the final year, when we were asked about our future professions, most students answered “mother” or “nun.” I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to be a doctor! I’ll never forget their response: “But Yvette, you weren’t raised for that. Do you realize there will be boys?”

My parents also tried to dissuade me by saying that medicine wasn’t a field for a woman. “And besides, you’re too young. We can’t afford your education.” They wanted me to go to the École Normale Supérieure to become a teacher: everyone in our house was a teacher! Keep in mind that this was Haiti in 1953, and at that time, parents guided their children’s career choices. But I was 15-years-old, with my whole life ahead of me, and nothing would stop me. I stood my ground against them.

Why did you come to Quebec at the tender young age of 23?

To specialize in pediatrics. There was a lot of infant mortality in Haiti at the time. So, I left my country in 1961 to come study in Quebec. My goal was to return later to help Haitian children. However, the difficult political situation there discouraged me. I had no money and only a student visa in hand. At that time, a medical resident earned $75 every two weeks, plus room and board. So, I pursued a second specialty in hematology.

And how did you come to perform that first bone marrow transplant?

It wasn’t just me behind this achievement: it was a major team effort. We were faced with Sonia’s situation: here was a 12-year-old girl who could die at any moment from hemorrhaging. The transplant was the only way to save her. She was at her gymnastics class when I called her parents to bring her to the hospital immediately. Can you imagine?

Initially, the solution was for Sonia to undergo surgery in New York, Seattle, or Boston, where bone marrow transplants were already being performed. However, the family couldn’t afford the trip, and they didn’t speak English. So I told my team, “We’re ready. We can do this.” We carried out the procedure and it saved Sonia’s life; it also demonstrated the validity of our hospital’s transplant program. We were taken seriously, and six months later, a second transplant was performed. But this time, we had a bit more time to prepare.

Are you proud of the career you’ve had since then?

The term “career” carries negative connotations in my view. Everyone praised my accomplishments, but for me, it didn’t change anything. Every morning, I arrived at the hospital to do what I had to do – and do it to the best of my abilities. I constantly had my mother’s words in my head: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” The rest fell into place on its own, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together.

Did you feel the need to stand out more than others, to carve out your place?

Yes, that’s the impression I had; although I’m not sure if it was entirely true. It was an extremely male-dominated environment at the time. Being a female doctor, black and an immigrant was automatically seen as a trifecta of “disadvantages” to my success. The trust of my colleagues wasn’t readily given. I always felt like I had to prove myself. Whenever I mentioned I was going to do something, I could see the scepticism in their eyes. They were wondering, “Is she really capable?” It was like a recurring theme. I couldn’t afford to make mistakes. I always told myself, “You have to be better than the best.” However, I was fortunate to work with a team where, for the most part, I was well-received. The toughest experiences were with those who didn’t know me.

Can you give us some examples?

Well, I’ll never forget this renowned surgeon who walked into the office I shared with another hematologist one day. I was starting to establish myself at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital. The whole team had gone out to eat, but I wanted to catch up on some work. When you’re starting out, you want to do well, so you’re a bit slower. This renowned surgeon wanted the opinion of a hematologist on an analysis he had in hand. He sees me… HE SEES ME, and he says, “Oh, there’s no one here…” and he leaves! The chief technician who was there then said to him, “But, didn’t you see Dr. Bonny? Come, let me introduce you to her.”

Another example was when I had to perform a lumbar puncture with a technician. Despite my qualifications, experience and reputation, she still asked me, “Are you sure you can handle this?”

I encountered numerous situations like this before my work was acknowledged and the barriers fell. Eventually, teams started requesting that I be the one to carry out procedures! I was now the sought-after doctor. It felt like a subtle form of vindication.

Do you think it’s still like that today for female doctors?

No, thankfully it’s evolved a lot. When I retired, there were several female doctors, five of whom were black, at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital. But I was the only one for a long time. In Haiti, I was also one of the few women to complete my medical studies. I only knew one other. She felt compelled to dress like a man, in a dark suit with shoes. No heels, no pink clothes, no jewellery – nothing! The message was that you had to “be a man” to be accepted. She wanted to erase her femininity in the eyes of others to be taken seriously.

Did you ever feel compelled to do the same?

No. I embraced being a woman from the start and showed that I was proud of it. I dressed in a classic manner, yes, but it was purely for the professional aspect. Nowadays, young women are assertive, they are quite “feminine.” They dare to be themselves, and it’s wonderful. Attitudes have changed, but there is still work to be done to change some unconscious biases, especially in predominantly male environments.

What were the consequences of dismissing all that feminine energy, in your opinion?

People didn’t realize what they were missing by ignoring or even denigrating the contribution of women in our roles. The compassion, the tenderness… the reassurance and more maternal aspect is unique and essential for fostering healing. There’s always a little touch of humanity in women that compliments the more pragmatic aspect of a profession.

Anyway, that’s how I was. But I often encountered masculine attitudes emphasizing efficiency, which sometimes made me feel less “productive” because I took the time to talk to patients. I would frequently hear, “My goodness, finally a doctor who answers our questions!”

Unfortunately, things are going from bad to worse because doctors have less and less time today. It’s the nurses who are taking over the human aspect. They are so important in a healthcare system.

At least some working conditions have improved, like parental leave.

Yes. It’s a good thing that has changed. Fathers are now more present, and we have better conditions. In my time, it wasn’t written anywhere in our contracts that we could take sick leave, let alone maternity leave! The bond with children is crucial in the early stages of their lives. It’s not humane to separate oneself from a 3-month-old baby to go to work.

So, who is Yvette Bonny today?

Apart from being a widow, I’m the mother of a lovely 48-year-old daughter. I’m retired, but people still come to me for advice on their health. So, I still lead an active medical life! It’s not intentional on my part, but it catches up with me, whether I want it to or not. I try to help some friends as well, whether it’s accompanying them to medical appointments or supporting them after surgery. That’s my volunteering. I don’t think I could ever stop that; it’s too much a part of me. There was an article in La Presse today about rare diseases that I immediately read. The medical field will always fascinate me. I stay involved with some research departments. I enjoy it. It keeps me engaged. I’m still curious. I always want to know everything.

What other areas of interest do you have?

Art, international politics… and hockey! I’m a big Canadiens fan! They’re letting me down at the moment, but I remain faithful! Soccer was a big deal in Haiti, it being the national sport. But when I came to Quebec, it was almost non-existent. So, I shifted my focus to hockey. That was during the time when the Canadiens were the greatest in the world! Guy Lafleur, Jean Béliveau… I experienced all of that!

Can we say that “we age as we’ve lived?”

Absolutely! I’m still just as persistent. (laughs) Ageing, for me, means continuing to help… and to live. Helping others also energizes me. It’s my fuel to push even harder. People often ask me why I do everything I do for others, and I reply that you never know, one day, it might be me who needs help. There’s altruism, but also a touch of selfishness in all of this.

Looking back, what are you most happy about in your life today at 85?

It has always been — and always will be — seeing a child recover from an illness that once condemned them. My patients have been like my children; and the parents of these children often became friends! They adopted me a bit like a member of their family. It’s true that I had a fulfilling career. But there’s nothing that brings me more joy than a healed child.

Madame Bonny, your energy is contagious. You’re an inspiration that proves nothing is impossible when the heart guides our choices. Thank you for everything you’ve done, and for what you continue to do to help others. Thank you for being… you!