‘I feel like I’ve been given a new life’

Stefanson ready for run at leadership after operation

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The Twitter video of the woman romping through a kiddies splash pad, arm in arm with the well-coiffed MLA Ron Schuler, had many Manitoba political watchers last weekend wondering if their eyes were playing tricks on them.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/09/2021 (458 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Twitter video of the woman romping through a kiddies splash pad, arm in arm with the well-coiffed MLA Ron Schuler, had many Manitoba political watchers last weekend wondering if their eyes were playing tricks on them.

Giggling, carefree abandon is not what most folks have come to expect from composed and reserved longtime Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson.

Nor was her Aug. 18 announcement that she’s running to lead the Progressive Conservative party and become premier.

Heather Stefanson took leave from her role as health minister to have a hysterectomy in May, she told the Free Press. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Neither would likely have been possible if she hadn’t had a life-changing operation three months ago.

On May 21 — after Manitoba posted two of the highest daily number of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic — the legislature press gallery was notified then-health minister Stefanson was undergoing a “necessary medical procedure” that day. They were later told she’d be off the job for six weeks to recover, without any details provided other than then-deputy premier Kelvin Goertzen would be filling in for her.

In a candid interview Wednesday, Stefanson revealed the “procedure” was a hysterectomy that she’d known she needed but had been putting off for more than a year.

“My doctor said to me ‘You need to get this done,’” she said during a break from a long day of campaigning to be leader of her party.

“I was in a lot of pain,” she recalled. “I didn’t realize how much pain I was in.”

Stefanson was appointed in a Jan. 5 cabinet shuffle to what’s known to be the most challenging portfolio without there being a global health crisis. She said her focus as she started her new role was getting the vaccine implementation task force up and running.

“We were also dealing with surgical backlogs,” she said. “My focus was getting to know people in the health care system… It’s a vast system and it takes time to do that.” Her focus wasn’t on how poorly she felt.

“You go day to day, you keep going through the motions and everything else,” she said. Her doctor told her to stop. “He said ‘if you don’t put your health first, how do you look after the health of Manitobans?’… I was going to have to take that leave.”

She had the hysterectomy at Health Sciences Centre and praised hospital staff for the care she received.

“I will tell you the operation was a game changer for me,” she said. “I feel absolutely fantastic now.”

She said she did not have cancer but that her mother died of ovarian cancer, and some people who knew that and heard she’d gone for surgery “were very worried.” Knowing she doesn’t have cancer and having had the operation has changed her outlook and her plans, she said.

“ I feel like I’ve been given a new life. It’s been amazing.” She doesn’t know if she would’ve considered running for PC leader if Brian Pallister had announced he was leaving before she’d had the hysterectomy and was in chronic pain.

“For some reason, the stars have come into alignment and given me this opportunity to put my name forward.”

There’s been a lot of speculation about when and why Stefanson decided to seek the leadership. She said she didn’t decide until the day before Pallister announced his retirement at a Brandon caucus meeting last month.

“This is something that I don’t think I’ve always aspired to,” she said. But after 21 years in office, she said she’s ready to lead the party through collaboration and a less “combative nature.”

Decision on lockdowns and pandemic restrictions that have been criticized far and wide by ICU doctors, teachers, businesses and a chorus of Manitobans were ultimately made by Pallister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, Stefanson said.

There’s been internal criticism from MLAs, too.

“I think there’s been some challenges within our government,” Stefanson said.

She said she knows the party — which has plummeted in opinion polls — needs to win back the trust of Manitobans.

“There’s no question about that,” Stefanson said.

“I think what I have earned is the trust of my cabinet colleagues. They know my collaborative approach. It’s different than the approach of our previous premier.”

Her strength is doing her homework, listening, and she doesn’t need to be “the smartest person in the room.” She said she wants people with the best ideas to be heard and that’s what she’ll do if she’s elected party leader on Oct. 30.

“I have learned something from every portfolio in the critic area and ever single portfolio I’ve held as minister. I think I’ve got the experience and the expertise to do this.”

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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Updated on Thursday, September 2, 2021 6:33 AM CDT: Fixes cutline

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