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Michael EleffBy MARTIN ZEILIG
Throughout his four decade-long career as a psychiatrist, Michael Eleff, MD, FRCPC, has, as he says, always done a little bit of private practice in addition to his primary role as a staff psychiatrist at the Health Sciences Centre and teaching at the (newly renamed) Max Rady College of Medicine.


“But what I will be doing beginning in July is more or less a half time community based practice in Winnipeg,” he said during a recent interview with The Jewish Post & News.
On May 10, Dr. Eleff, an Associate Professor in the  Department of Psychiatry  in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, gave a power point presentation entitled 40 Years of Psychiatry: Learning and Teaching. The lecture, which was held at the Basic Medical Sciences Building, attracted some 70 people– both health care professionals and members of the public.
“It was important to me to attend, so I made it for the time that I could – the second half of Michael’s presentation,” said Dr. Mark Etkin, another local psychiatrist, in an email response to questions from a reporter. “I was a family physician, having worked at Klinic and then the HIV centre - Village Clinic, in 1989, when I applied to the Department of Psychiatry residency program. Michael was the residency program director at the time that I applied. He was positive, accepting, and supportive of me personally as an applicant, and later, as one of my supervisors during my time as a resident.”
Dr. Etkin added that psychiatry has gone through various changes, some “perhaps for the better; others not necessarily so.”
“Michael has always been a steady influence, as a humanitarian, and as a person who stayed true to his vision of what is important in psychiatric care,” he added. “He did not change these views merely because of some change or fad in psychiatric practice. He has always been keenly attuned to the needs of his patients. It seemed to me that he was always kind and empathic.”
He called Dr. Eleff’s lecture full of wisdom.
“He focused on some things that I have heard him say in the past,” Dr. Etkin continued. “It was helpful to me to hear some of his nuggets of wisdom again. Michael is one of a kind. He is a multi-faceted gem with much to love and appreciate.”
Dr. Eleff, who was born and raised in New York City, received his undergraduate degree in English Literature at the U of M.
“As an undergraduate, I thought the professors had the best life in the world – teaching and writing about life, literature and poetry and chasing young women,” he said. “What I decided is that I wanted to be a therapist, and at the time psychology at the U of M was experimental and not clinical psychology. So, I primarily went to the U of M medical school to become a psychiatrist. That was my goal. I picked up the science requirements and was accepted into medical school.”
Dr. Eleff said he moved to Winnipeg because of a connection he had with Dr. Philip Katz, who trained in New York.
“He taught me that psychiatry is not just a skill-set but an expression of caring,” he offered, noting that Dr. Katz was like a “big brother” to him. “I discovered that between the inexpensive tuition and the eight month university year, and the strong U.S. dollar, that I could attend university in Canada for next to nothing in the 1960s. So, I came here to go to the University of Manitoba because it was affordable.”
He also met his future wife, Chana Thau, a language student at the U of M. Today, they have three adult children -  with three grandchildren on the way, said Dr. Eleff, a self described moderately traditional Jew.
“I valued everything I did at medical school,” he emphasized. “But, what I tell my students is choosing a career is like choosing a pair of shoes. You look. You try them on. Then, you walk around in them. The question is whether it’s a good shoe for you.”
Apart from Dr. Katz, Dr. Eleff pointed to the other major influences on his life: His mother, Jean Zipkin Eleff (z”l), “who taught me that life is precious and all people are precious”; Dr. Nahum Spinner (z”l) of McMaster University, “who taught me that medicine rests on history, and that the past informs the present”; and, his wife “who has supported me when I would have fallen.”
In 2004, Dr. Eleff travelled to South Russia, to the Caucasus, on a Canada-Russia exchange program, to teach about community responses to trauma. He arrived five weeks after the terrible tragedy in Beslan – 330 children died in a town of 10,000, in a terrorist attack.
“This event underscored both the terrible events that continue to occur in the world, and the capacity of caring individuals to promote healing in the abattoir,” Dr. Eleff observed soberly.
Over the years, he has seen numerous changes in psychiatry, he said.
“On the positive side there are now standardized diagnostic language and assessments,” Dr. Eleff emphasized. “Medications that may not necessarily work better, but are certainly far less toxic. There’s also been some modest improvement in society’s attitudes toward the mentally ill. Negative changes include a rush to prescribing rather than understanding.”
The health care system, originally designed to facilitate care, has become the arbiter and controller of care, he maintained.
“I’m most proud of the effort I’ve put into teaching not just the contents of psychiatry, but a humane approach to the mentally ill,” said Dr. Eleff. “The two pillars of my career have been the clinical work with adults, many of whom live with severe and enduring mental illness, and teaching an approach to them that emphasizes respect and caring.”
He certainly chose the right shoes.

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