A Hero Among Us

Retired psychotherapist Louisa Lai continues to help those in need.

By Julia Vaiano | Featured image courtesy of Orna Watchman via Pixabay | Updated April 21, 2020

 Her buzzing iPhone stirs 68-year-old Louisa Lai, a retired Toronto psychotherapist, from her peaceful slumber. She rolls over and retrieves her burgundy-rimmed glasses. She puts them on and sees that it’s 11 p.m.

She’s greeted by a flood of incoming texts from a patient, Emma (not her real name; she asked not to be identified for privacy reasons), saying she can’t sleep because of how anxious she feels. She asks if Lai would be willing to speak with her. Without hesitation, Lai answers Emma’s late-night call because her principle is that whenever someone approaches her for assistance, no matter what time, she will never refuse them.

Although no longer officially practicing at the time, Lai took Emma on as a patient in 2012 and has continued to support her ever since. Since then, Emma has maintained a close relationship with Lai and refers to her as being more than a counsellor but a true friend and “unconditional support.” 

“Louisa is an angel sent from heaven,” says Emma, “and with her, I learned to see things from a psychological, spiritual and emotional point of view with great compassion, love, wisdom and professionalism.”

Lai is not only a guiding light in Emma’s life but in that of many others. Since her early retirement in 2009, she has decided to see patients, without charge, based on referrals from people in the Greater Toronto Area and direct referrals from Catholic priests. She provides free therapy to people of all ages who are dealing with mental illness and personal problems.

Lai’s decision to give free therapy is a remarkable act of kindness because not everyone across Canada, who is affected by mental illness can receive the help and proper treatment they require because of how expensive therapy sessions are. The average cost of a private therapy session in Canada ranges between $125 to $175.

According to a report published by Statistics Canada, “In 2018, roughly 5.3 million people in Canada mentioned they needed some help for their mental health.” However, 1.1. million people did not receive assistance. . One of the most reported reasons was the cost.

Lai recognizes such a dire need. This petite woman has pin-straight, raven-black hair that rests just below her jawline.  She always wears a smile despite growing up in a household filled with great sadness. Unshakeable grief loomed over her family for years because of the double suicide of her grandparents that resulted from the severe persecution they faced from the communist Chinese government before she was born.

 “Growing up with such a dark cloud hanging over my family made me perceptive to when other people around me were feeling upset or were grappling with something,” she says. “And because I was so observant, I felt like I developed a huge need to want to help people who were struggling.”

Even though Lai felt a natural calling to help people, in 1971, at age 18, she decided to enroll at the University of Kansas to major in biology. After experiencing a personal crisis, she says, “I realized at that moment in time that my true purpose in life was to help those around me.”

She switched to psychology in the spring of 1973. After she graduated, she studied clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario where she was one of seven students admitted into this highly competitive program. After graduating in 1977, she returned to her home in Hong Kong and found employment as a clinical psychologist at the Hong Kong Christian Service.

Lai always had a desire to better the community. That led her to start a pilot project called Infant Stimulation and Parent Effectiveness Training Program in Hong Kong, which she  provides for free.

Lai spent three years overseeing the project, which identified developmental issues in children from ages zero to three. A mother and child, for example, would come in once a week, and a social worker and nurse would evaluate the child and decide if they were ready to move on to the next set of exercises that involved improving their gross motor, fine motor, language, cognition, and social skills.

The program celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018 and is now used all across Hong Kong. Yet the media coverage and massive success of the program is not what ultimately pleases Lai.

“I’m beyond proud of the program because of how many children’s lives it continues to change,” Lai says. Her warm, chocolate brown eyes shine with passion. “When I witnessed how much this program helped the children, it brought me the greatest joy because I helped make a positive and profound difference.”

In 1995, Lai started a private practice called Ivy Health Services in Scarborough. The practice was dedicated to helping patients with post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from serious car accidents. Many times, Lai would see patients beyond the allotted hour session, even up to two to three hours, yet only charged them for one.

“Seeing a patient for an hour wasn’t working because as soon as a patient and I were onto something, the hour would end. I could tell that it was incredibly frustrating for the patient, and I couldn’t turn someone away who needed my help,” she says. 

 The year 2020 marks the 11th year of Lai’s retirement, yet she continues to devote much of her time to helping people. She typically makes sure to check in in on all her patients by exchanging daily text messages, and that has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lai is still speaking to her patients and makes herself available for daily phone calls. “I’m happy to help and support all my patients, especially during these scary and uncertain times,” she says.

Real-life heroes don’t fly in the sky with a billowing red cape trailing behind them;   instead, they can be seen sitting right in front of us. Emma couldn’t agree more when she says, “I consider Louisa to be a real-life hero, and I really can’t thank her enough.”

Julia Vaiano, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at aianojulia@gmail.com

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