When Permjit Kaur Sandhu began working at Provincial Health Laboratories – the former name of the BC Centre for Disease Control – on May 5, 1971, she had no way of knowing she was at the beginning of a remarkable 50-year career with an organization whose role of public service meshed with her passion for giving back to the community around her.
But now more than half a century later, she hung up her safety glasses and other PPE for the last time earlier this month, stepping away from the Technical Support department as a Medical Laboratory Assistant where she and her team prepared and sterilized media (chemical substances needed to conduct tests) to enable other departments to perform a wide variety of diagnostic and scientific tests.
“I worked with a great team, and many of my colleagues have become true friends over the years,” she says. “We enjoyed a mutual respect, communicated effectively and worked well together, providing the critical first step of the testing and diagnostic process as well as quality control for water bacteria, tuberculosis, parasites and other communicable disease tests.”
Looking back to the start, she recalls a whirlwind job search, application and interview process that went from first contact as a potential employee to her starting her job in less than 24 hours. As a newlywed who had just moved from her Victoria, BC birthplace to Vancouver, her call to Provincial Health Laboratories started a chain of events that resulted in a job interview that morning, a tour of the lab after the interview and a job offer and request by the Director, to start work that same day!
“I didn’t have the appropriate footwear to begin the new job – nurse’s duty shoes were required at the time – so I informed him I’d start the next day, May 5, 1971,” she chuckles. “Up until the other day, I’ve been working here ever since!”
Ironically, if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, she wouldn’t have reached the 50-year milestone as she had planned to retire in 2020. But when the world changed practically overnight, “I felt it was my duty as a Canadian and a British Columbian to do what I could to help.” She describes the last year as “an intense all hands on deck” situation and is proud to have been able to contribute to the collective response mounted by health care workers across the province.
When asked to explain reaching such a significant career and life milestone of 50 years with one organization, Permjit is clear she hasn’t done it all on her own. “The support of my family, particularly my spouse, Avtar Singh Sandhu, and my 8 children, and 12 grandchildren has been integral to my success.” she says. “They’ve been my constant source of strength and encouragement to continue my work and develop in my career, as well as in my community service and personal endeavours.”
While she recalls other periods of heightened public health concerns during the last few decades, during the SARS and the HIV crises for example, she still says that the effects and efforts of her team and so many others at BCCDC during this last 16 months is “unprecedented.”
Her commitment to a positive, healthy, and safe work environment for her colleagues led her to become a member of the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee as well as a respected BC Government Employees’ Union (BCGEU) Shop Steward. Permjit’s ability to find common ground between management and staff earned her respect by all involved in the labour relations process.
Her path hasn’t been easy at times as, after a near-fatal car crash, she fought for two years to learn how to walk again. Her children credit Permjit’s upbeat positive spirit for helping her overcome that challenge as well as for her popularity with her colleagues.
On top of an active career at the BCCDC, Permjit has also pursued a vast array of activities in her community along the way. Her interests have led her to a wide variety of interesting activities on top of her career and family life including:
- earning a Diploma in Early Childhood Education (while working full time and raising a family);
- serving as a volunteer (and currently a director) with Vancouver’s Sunset Community Centre Association for 50+ years;
- becoming a well-known personality for her Indian cooking through hosting a television cooking program, founding an international cooking school, providing private cooking instruction as a personal chef, writing a cookbook and teaching cooking classes in Vancouver community centres, at the Vancouver School Board and at the Hudson’s Bay Company;
- being a weekly contributor to the Vancouver Sun, as a selected athlete/runner profiled for her training regimen for the Vancouver Sun Run;
- volunteering with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and the Khalsa Diwan Society/Sikh Gurudwara of Vancouver.
Permjit’s retirement plans look like they’ll keep her as busy after work as she’s been throughout her last half century at the BCCDC.
“As a lifelong learner, my motto is ‘There is never enough to learn, to grow, and to offer,’ so I plan on continuing doing all of these things,” she says with her trademark energy and enthusiasm. Projects like finishing a cookbook, traveling and food blogging await her, in addition to spending quality time with her grandchildren and family.