Dr. Jarmila Chrappa stood in front of a packed audience — of almost entirely women — in Corner Brook and told them she is proud to be a woman.
While all of the women there would perhaps agree, not many had to overcome what the pediatric doctor did to confidently announce those words as she walked off the stage at the Bread of Roses Dinner Saturday.
Chrappa retired just over two years ago following a 27-year practise in Corner Brook. As she shared her story of escaping from the former Czechoslovakia, to finding any job necessary in Canada, to passing her Canadian medical exam knowing little English, it is remarkable to consider that she even found a way into the North American medical profession at all.
As guest speaker of the Corner Brook Status of Women Council’s event in recognition of International Women’s Day, Chrappa began by letting everyone in the room know they all had a lot in common despite their different cultures.
“We all have grandmothers and mothers, we are all daughters and many of us are mothers and we may have daughters as well,” she said. “So, have a happy International Women’s Day.”
Chrappa says she always dreamed of escaping the communist country for a place she could live freely and do the adventurous things she has done since coming to Canada. She grew up isolated from information — even magazines and books — from the outside world.
Once married and with a daughter of her own, Alexandra, the long journey to leave had begun. From hiding her and her husband, Dr. Ivan Chrappa’s (who died in 1999) medical papers inside the lining of her handbag during a vacation to Greece, to cutting Alexandra’s hair and dressing her in boy’s clothing to avoid detection, their escape is an amazing journey.
They arrived in Toronto, expecting a lot of French speaking Canadians in the “bilingual” country. Knowing no English, they struggled when that wasn’t the case.
She was told of a job interview for a cleaner position at a hospital. She did not get it when she told them she was a pediatrician in her native country. They were fearful of the perceptions of a former cleaning woman one day becoming a doctor at the same hospital, she said.
Chrappa landed a cooking job for a family in Toronto. She then discovered Sesame Street and began learning fragments of English. She would later pass her medical exam, still not being able to speak much English — but knowing the written medical language mainly because of the distinguished origins of most medical words.
She sent internship requests across the country, but only Newfoundland and Labrador returned a favourable response. It was off to foreign soil again — this time warned by friends of what awaited her.
“I heard different information about Newfoundland, but in my mind I thought of Newfoundland as the place where there are no roads and the majority of the population live in igloos,” Chrappa said.
She landed an interview, was successful in completing her internship — again despite the language barriers — and eventually her residency.
“Despite it all, I never really felt discouraged or desperate,” she said. “You know why? Because everybody helped me — from nurses to lab technicians to my colleagues to professors who were teaching me, I heard words of encouragement every day.”
Chrappa then began her practise in Corner Brook, but her struggles were not over. She said her personal life turned upside down and found herself unhappily married.
It was no easy task for her to get out of marriage, but eventually she would. She said Alexandra introduced her to feminist literature around that time — something she reluctantly read.
“At the time I said ‘I don’t want to read that, that I am fully equally,’” she said. “I am a physician.”
The more she read, the more she understood.
“The only person who could change whatever I like or dislike in my life is me,” Chrappa said.
She said a weight was lifted from her shoulders. She began living life the way she wanted — “constructing her own reality.”
So, when she announced she was proud she was a woman. It held much merit throughout the crowd. They rose to their feet and applauded for quite some time.