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Joyce Louise Barrett

Family doctor, mother, volunteer, author. Born on May 9, 1944, in Toronto; died on Jan. 18, 2014, in Peterborough, Ont., of cancer, aged 69.

When retired physician Joyce Barrett told her family that she had started yet another volunteer position – this time with a high-school program for teen moms – they weren't at all surprised. They thought she might be teaching a parenting class, or doing well-baby checks on the infants. But, no, she was going to make lunches for the young mothers. Her family was well aware that cooking wasn't one of her strengths, so they asked why she had taken on this task. "Because that's what they needed someone to do," she said.

That was Joyce's lifelong focus: She would look around, see what was needed, and step in to do whatever she could to help.

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Born and raised in Toronto, Joyce knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor. She met her husband, now-retired urologist John Hambley, when he was a dashing and very popular resident and she was a medical student at Wellesley Hospital. When she moved to her next assignment, he wrote to her every day; she would get three letters on Mondays (no mail delivery on weekends). They married in 1969, when she was 25, and the next year moved to Peterborough, Ont., to set up their medical practices. Their daughters, Pam and Liza, were born four years apart – to the day.

As a family physician, Joyce's goal was to provide her patients with the best information possible and encourage them to make choices that were right for them. She even had a sign in her office that read, "Remember, I might be wrong."

She was passionate about supporting women through pregnancy and birth. She stayed with her patients throughout their labour and did her best to help them have the birth experience they wanted. At times that meant questioning the usual hospital routines, which brought her into conflict with some of her medical colleagues. However, her willingness to speak up changed health care for pregnant women in her community and beyond; after she retired early in 1997, she co-wrote Pregnancy and Birth: The Best Evidence, which went into a second edition and helped thousands more.

As their daughters grew up, Joyce and John opened their home and hearts to seven other girls over the years, who for various reasons needed a nurturing home; she referred to them as her "chosen daughters." They brought Joyce much joy, as did her three grandchildren (Emma, Lilian and Zoe) and the children of her chosen daughters, who called her Grandma Joyce.

In retirement, Joyce had more opportunities to live her belief that one person – and every person – can make a difference. She was actively involved in a wide range of social justice causes including Peterborough's Abraham Festival (which brings together people of various faiths), Kawartha Ploughshares (peace and disarmament) and PFLAG (parents and friends of lesbians and gays).

The diagnosis of cancer in 2010 did not initially slow her down, but eventually the disease spread. She had long been a member of a community choir and when she became too ill to leave her home, choir members stopped in every day to sing to her. The music was a great comfort.

Joyce died at home, as she wished. She was cared for in her final weeks by those she loved, and who loved her: her husband, her sister Lenore, her daughters, both born and chosen, her dear friends, and her beloved granddaughters. There was music and food and laughter and tears. Her warmth, intelligence, generosity and compassion touched many lives, and she is profoundly missed.

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Teresa Pitman is Joyce's friend.

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