Doctors discuss Judaism’s impact on their careers
William Bell, a doctor who practised in the Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue area for 50 years, was the first person in his family to go to university and he was admitted to medical school when a quota system for Jewish students existed.
Bell, who did his internship at the only hospital that would have him, Mount Sinai, practised three blocks away from his home and made house calls. He also “really” listened to people and counselled them, said his son, Dr. Chaim Bell. His late father’s example “formed” him, he said, and was a factor in leading him to a career in medicine.
A general internist, Bell was one of three Mount Sinai Hospital’s clinical leaders, along with neonatologist Dr. Sharon Unger and neurologist Dr. Maureen Shandling, on a recent panel at Mount Sinai hosted by Rabbi Yossi Sapirman. The doctors discussed health care and their approach to their work through a Jewish lens.
Kevin Goldthorp, president of the Mount Sinai Hospital Foundation, who introduced the panelists at the May 28 event, noted that the hospital was founded by Toronto’s Jewish community as a reflection of the Jewish value of tikkun olam, healing the world, and has always welcomed everyone without discrimination.
Bell said his professional interests are both “micro,” the doctor-patient relationship, and “macro,” delivering better health care in general. His research focuses on patient safety and the quality of care in hospitals. “Even though we get excellent health care, we should always be striving to do better,” he said.
He stressed the importance of balancing the micro and the macro, but he said “one on one is paramount.” Doctors are with patients at the most intense times of their lives, particularly at the end of life, he said. “It is a privilege to be involved.”
Shandling said that students go into medicine because they want to help individuals and “later realize there’s opportunities to improve health for large groups of people.” Stressing how important it is for a doctor to have human contact, she said that any doctor working toward the greater good “should maintain a clinical practice.”
Shandling is descended from Jews who fled from Lithuania to escape pogroms and who settled in Africa. Her parents got married in Zimbabwe, and the family moved to Edmonton when she was a child. Her role model of what a family doctor should be is a practitioner she knew in Edmonton, she said. She recalled observing “the level of trust between him and his patients.” She added that “love of learning, another Jewish characteristic,” led her to medicine.
Responding indirectly to a remark Rabbi Sapirman made, to the effect that God is the primary healer and the doctor is the instrument, Shandling said that she sees people with serious illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis and “they ask me, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ I say, ‘It’s out of our hands.’”
She said “the longer you practise medicine, the more humility you have, particularly when you can’t cure diseases and see how often that is.”
Unger said that she feels families give her the privilege of participating in their lives and their children’s lives. “Unfortunately, I’m there when I see the end of a child’s life.”
On a happier note, she said she sits with a family when a baby is very sick and “I do my best. Sometimes I do nothing. A year or two later, [the child] comes into clinic and we colour together,” she said, adding “now that’s an amazing career.”
Unger said when she and her sister were growing up, her father, Israel, who had been a child Holocaust survivor in Poland, urged his daughters to become doctors. Unger said her decision to go into pediatrics was influenced by her grandmother, Hinda, who was “my hero,” and who had saved the entire family during the Holocaust, including all of the children.
As a neonatologist, Unger said she sees herself as a “mother helping another mother.” Unger is the medical director of Ontario’s Milk Bank. Located at Mount Sinai, and in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, the Milk Bank collects donated breast milk from lactating women, pasteurizes it and distributes it by prescription to medically fragile babies in neonatal intensive care units across Ontario.
When Rabbi Sapirman asked Unger what she would wish for if she could have anything she wanted, Unger replied that she would ask for breast milk for every infant in Ontario, so no infant would have “to drink cow’s milk.”