Thursday 20 November 2014

UTT/Herzliah community reeling after shocking and sudden death of teacher and parent

I do not recall ever meeting Sarit Malca Azran in person, but based on the things I have heard about her over the last few days,  in the wake of her shocking and tragic death,  this young woman was a special person. She was a  beloved wife, mother of  two girls aged 8 and 5 and a teacher at Herzliah High School,  who got high marks from all of her students.
Sarit Malca

On Saturday, November 15, Sarit, only 41,   went to the hospital suffering from severe stomach pain. Her condition continued to deteriorate and three days later  she passed away.

My heart goes out to her family, friends, students and colleagues. They are all naturally devastated. Why do things like this happen? How could they?

Social services agency Ometz has been in the school offering grief counselling. A Twitter hash tag #Herzstrong has been used to show how everyone will get through this experience together.

A native Israeli, Sarit taught Hebrew and Jewish history and was noted for the work she did between the school and its sister city  for a program called Gesher Chai which linked her school with those in Beer Sheva
"Sarit encouraged our family to participate in Gesher Chai earlier this year,"  said Natalie Celemencki Lang. "We hosted a 16 year old boy from Beer Sheva. She assured me it would be a life changing experience for our family, and we would learn about Israel, where no one in our family has ever gone. She was right! We loved the experience. G-d bless her and may her family know how much she was loved by everyone she touched."

Here is a video with Sarit from only a few months ago. It shows her passion

Student Ronel  Bouzaglo was so close with Malca that he gave one of the eulogies at her funeral. "Whether you were close with her or not, Morah Malca managed to create a relationship with every single student who walked through her classroom door," he said. "She also had this special way of making every student feel like they were her favorite. She was the teacher that every student felt comfortable enough to go to, to speak about anything. She just had a special way with her students that was one of a kind. The amount of people in this room right now says it all.

"Morah Malca formed bonds with her students that can never be broken. Even though she is no longer with us, the bonds she forged will never vanish. Her legacy in this school goes far beyond Judaic studies. Whether dedicating all of her time and energy into the fashion show, Gesher Chai or keeping kids who got sent out of class, hidden from the administration, Morah Malca was truly a genuinely loving person. No one will ever forget her contagious smile, her loving personality or her dedication to Herzliah. Many of us have not fully been to able rap our minds around the fact that she is no longer with us, however not a single Herzliah soul will ever forget the name Morah Malca. Her name and positive attitude will live on for years to come."

Ronel considers himself fortunate to have  had the privilege to get to know Malca well over the last few years. "Because she had taught my older siblings, I felt I already knew her even before we actually met," he said. "It was just this past Friday that I was chatting with her over Facebook about the finale of a TV  show that we both love so much that is coming up. We spoke about it every day at school, anticipating how Sons of Anarchy was going to end. She then asked me how our Washington grad trip went and how she was extremely upset that she wasn’t able to join us. All the Secondary V students were equally upset, knowing that our favorite teacher will not be sharing these special memories with us."

How special was she? Ronel tells this story. " Several years ago, there was a group of 8th graders in Morah Malca’s class who were having difficulties understanding the material for their test," he said. "The day before their test, Morah Malca wasn’t going to let her students walk into class the unprepared. So she took matters into her own hands. She invited all of  the 8th graders to her house the night before to tutor them and to ensure that they all passed with flying colors. She even offered them candy and snacks to make the study session as enjoyable as possible. One student described the  smile on her face as she handed back the tests to her students with nothing but passing grades. This truly shows us the type of woman Morah Malca was inside and outside of the classroom."

Jeremy Levett, a bright and charismatic student at Herzliah whom I know, shared with me how all of his classmates are coping. "She was by far one of the most outgoing and inspiring teachers," he said. "She made all students feel like they had someone to talk to and was a source of inspiration for us all.

"Students have been taking this hard," he continued. "There has been a lot of emotion in the school. The administration has handled things  well and took care of the situation in a very professional manner. She touched each and every student in the school in their own special way."
On the Paperman and Sons website, tributes are pouring in. "Sarit started her teaching career at Herzliah when I was vice principal," writes Vera Center. "Her enthusiasm and dedication to her students were admirable. She will surely be missed by many."

"A rare gem!" wrote some parents of former students. " How fortunate for us as parents to have had Sarit plant seeds of wisdom in our children. How rare in any field it is to have someone perform a function with a smile, expertise, and care so much as to go beyond their mere job description."

Wrote  Sandra & Moise Moghrabi: "As is much of the community, we are still in utter shock about the untimely passing of beautiful Sarit z'l. She had a direct and positive impact on each and every person she met, myself included."

"I had the pleasure of doing my teaching degree with Sarit many years ago," said Melissa Margles. "She was warm, caring, kind and fun. It is clear that she was the same way with her students who were so very lucky to have had her as a teacher and mentor for some." 

Amiel Bender, the Chazzan Sheini at Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem Congregation and formerly  Youth Director at Beth Ora Congregation, expressed what a   terrible loss for the UTT/Herzliah family and the Jewish educational profession of Montreal at large has suffered. "Sarit lit up the room with her enthusiasm and energy and enhanced the lives of so many of our youth with her knowledge and empathy," he said.  "Her smile was contagious and her actions sincere. Whenever she came to work at Beth Ora with the Herzliah kids she was a pleasure to work with."


Wednesday 19 November 2014

University sports in Montreal merits more media coverage

I spent the morning of November 18 at the Ed Meagher Arena of Concordia University watching the host Concordia Stingers play the Carleton Ravens in Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) Women's Hockey Action. It was part of an activity coordinated by my English Montreal School Board colleague Daniel Smajovits, linking university sports and the goal of "staying in school" with our youngster. More than 800 students were on hand for the 2-1 Carleton victory in a shootout, but our commitment does not end there. We will be working with Concordia athletes throughout the academic year as they begin to integrate themselves into school activities.


This was a nostalgic visit for me. Not only did I graduate from Concordia in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and Journalism, but  for the following two years I worked for the Department of Athletics as sports information officer. My colleague from the time, Catherine Grace, is still there and at the helm.  While I was a student I helped launch The Concordian Newspaper, serving as founding sports editor. I always appreciated the quality of university sports, be it football, soccer, basketball, hockey, wrestling or rugby.

EMSB Commissioner Joseph Lalla and students at the ceremonial opening faceoff.
Concordia has come a long way these past three decades. While the arena can't necessarily hold more people, the $8 million upgrade it underwent is noticeable. All of their teams offer great entertainment and  I would recommend more parents bring their kids. Women's hockey, for example, showcases some young ladies who are truly elite at what they do. We were excited to work with them this year and it  was wonderful to watch the reaction of the many young girls who attended the game, motivated that they can set their minds to anything they wish.
It was great to catch up with men's hockey coach Kevin Figsby,  men's basketball coach John Dore (in his final season) and women's head coach Les Lawton, These are the ultimate gentlemen who work tirelessly year-round to plan their programs. They do a lot more than stand behind the bench, handling everything from travel arrangements to scouting duties.
I got to meet Patrick Boivin, the son of former Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin. Patrick was named athletic director at Concordia last year and he is anxious to work with the schools and anyone else in the community who can give his program a boost. One of the sensational features at Concordia is the Stinger Dome, a heated indoor structure where their athletes can train year-round.
What I find really sad is how most of the Montreal sports media are ignoring university sports. All of the teams from Concordia and McGill should be getting regular coverage. Not everyone can afford to go watch the Canadiens play at the Bell Centre. The price is right at the university level. The three-pack of a hot dog, drink and chips cost me $5; one -third of what the Bell Centre would charge me.
If you have not been out to any university sports events, well then mark it down on your "to do" list. You will not be sorry.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Symposium on Inflammatory Bowel Disease provides valuable information

Nicholaos Contaxakis does not pull any punches. The Montreal businessman suffers from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and as the emcee for Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Month Patient Symposium held November 15 at Hotel Ruby Foo’s he shared intimate details about his condition.

“We have to stop being ashamed of this illness and be willing to talk about it,” Nicolas told an audience of sufferers and family members of those with IBD.

Nicolas is correct. I have had Crohn’s Disease for 27 years, a mild case which fortunately has not interfered greatly with my day to day life.  When I was first diagnosed I did not know another person with the same problem. I kept to myself and for 11 years my main employer did not even know about my condition, which was all the more interesting given the fact I travelled internationally and usually roomed with my boss. I guess I did not want to get stigmatized or held back from anyone exciting travel experiences.

As time went on and I moved on to my next and current job I did not keep it a secret anymore. I felt comfortable bringing it up in conversation. When I had some preventive surgery a decade ago I even wrote about it in my column. By this time organizations like the Crohn's and Colitis Canada and the McGill IBD Research Group had high profiles. Not only were more events being held, but people with IBD were stepping forward

Despite all of this, there is still a lot of work to be done. As Nicolas rightly pointed asked: “How many people know this is Movember versus Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Month?”
I was encouraged by the number of people on hand for the symposium, where sessions were held simultaneously in English and French covering the latest IBD research, financial planning for people living with IBD and pregnancy and fertility.

Dr. Maya Saleh, an Associate Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Biochemistry and Director of the Inflammation and Cancer Program at the McGillUniversity Health Centre, was the first speaker. She is Associate Member in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Associate member of the Goodman Cancer Centre and a member of the Center for the Study of Host Resistance and the Division of Critical Care of the MUHC Research Institute. She joined the faculty of Medicine at McGill University in 2005 and is a McGill University Dawson Scholar, a FRSQ Chercheur-Boursier Junior 2 and a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator in  the Pathogenesis of Infectious diseases.

Left top right: Nicholaos Contaxakis (English MC). Andrée Mathieu (Janssen, event sponsor), Dr. Maya Saleh (McGill University) , Yael Mamane (Vertex Pharmaceuticals), Richard Chiasson (Sunlife Financials), Anick Murray (French MC).
Dr. Saleh gave a general overview of the GI tract and then spoke about the genetic effect of children and IBD and the environmental triggers for adults who get the disease. “As we get older our immune systems become weaker and weaker,” she explained.

How heritable is IBD? As a matter of comparison she listed bladder cancer as very low in this category compared to Celiac Disease, which is very high. Colitis and Ulceritis Colitis fall in the middle at 50 percent.

While reviewing the  different medications used to treat IBD, Dr. Saleh spoke optimistically about research currently being done at McMaster University in Hamilton about fecal transfers and success in this area thus far related to cases of C Difficile. “It is in the really early stages,” said Dr. Saleh, “but the hope is fecal transplants could prove to be a cure and administered in the form of a suppository. How often will you need it? Once a year? Once a week?”

This experimental therapy involves injecting fecal matter into the GI tract of sufferers of ulcerative colitis. According to reports, the McMaster study has involved participants suffering from ulcerative colitis receiving fecal material from specially screened donors, while others received a placebo mixture. Similar to an enema, the mixtures are infused into their colon with a syringe.

The idea of a fecal transplant is that "good" bacteria from healthy stool move in and take up residence, crowding out "bad" bacteria such as C. diff. The donor (typically a patient's family member) is screened for conditions that could disqualify them, including hidden disease or parasites. They are instructed to produce a sample at home, put it on ice and take it to the hospital for the procedure. Current treatment for IDB includes prednisone, imuran,  mercaptopurine (6mp), methotrexate, remicade, humira and stelara (ustekinumab).

New treatments coming down the pipe include vedolizumb, which was approved  in the US last May 2014 for patients with moderately to severely active Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.  Vedolizumab is described as an option when conventional therapy is not tolerated or does not provide sufficient release of symptoms.  

Tofacitinib (Xeljanz) is a Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drug (DMARD) first available in 2012. It is currently approved for the treatment of moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis with or without methotrexate and now in trial phases for IBD.
Richard Chiasson from Sun Life Financial presented some tips on financial planning for Crohn’s and Colitis patients.  Chiasson was a nurse for 21 years so he is in a good condition to advise clients with different illnesses. “The greatest list to depleting your wealth is your health because you cannot control it,” he noted.
What can derail your retirement plans? “You live too long, die too soon or become sick and disabled,” was Chiasson’s response. “Our lives can turn on a dime.”

Dr. Talat Bessissow is  an Assistant Professor to the Division of Gastroenterology. He  completed post-graduate training in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology and a fellowship in inflammatory bowel disease and   advanced endoscopic imaging at the Gasthuisberg University Hospital in Leuven, Belgium. His current research focuses on the role and outcomes of mucosal healing in inflammatory bowel disease. He has clinical duties at the MUHC, teaching students and supervising medical residents and will part of a new IBD Centre being set to be established at the Montreal General Hospital facility next April. 

Dr. Bessissow stated from the outset that there is no difference between the average person and someone with IBD completing a normal pregnancy. However, fertility can go down significantly when surgery involves the removal of the rectum because this creates inflammation and scarring.  The solution for a woman who has not had her family yet is to consider a temporary ileostomy – a temporary bag or pouch that allows the rectum to stay in place.

The goal in pregnancy, Dr. Bessissow’s stressed, is to be in remission and maintain that for the entire nine month period. Statistics indicate that that there is a 14 percent chance of an IDB post-partum flare. Reduce x-rays and if you need a colonoscopy only do so in the second trimester. In contrast, flex sigmoidscopies are low risk. Women with a pouch and those with parianal disease should have C-sections.

In terms of medications, those taking a biologic like Remicade should stop that treatment after 32 weeks and resume once the baby is born. As for Humira, this should be halted between weeks 36 and 38. Naturally, if the illness flares up the treating physicians will decide how to handle this.

Communication between the obstetrician and the pediatrician is paramount in cases like this.

The program concluded with can emphasis on the need for volunteers. It was interesting to see the new Generation C Group, a gathering of young adults who have started to meet and have a fitness-oriented fundraiser planned for January. In keeping with the bilingual nature of the organization, the conference ran French sessions concurrently with the English ones.