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sara israels mark proberBy MYRON LOVE

Two leading members of the medical profession in Winnipeg were recently honoured for their lifelong contributions to healthcare in Manitoba.


On Friday, May 6, Doctors Manitoba bestowed upon Dr. Mark Prober the organization’s annual Health or Safety Award at the AGM. Prober was recognized for “contributions toward improving or promoting the health or safety of Manitobans specifically or humanity generally”.
“It is wonderful receiving validation from one’s colleagues for your life’s work,” says the long time psychiatrist who specializes in providing service to Manitoba physicians, medical students and residents, their spouses and dependent children.
Two days earlier, Dr. Sara Israels was one of 12 women who were honoured at the YMCA-YWCA annual Women of Distinction gala. “I was really touched by the award,” says the pediatric oncologist and hematologist. “What was really special about this award,” she adds, “is that I was nominated by my colleagues, some of whom I have worked with for more than 25 years.”
On October 1, Israels will mark her 30th year as a professor of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at the University of Manitoba. You could very well say that she was “to the purple born”. Both of her parents, Dr. Lyonel Israels (who passed away in 2003),  and Dr. Esther Israels, were involved in oncology and hematology research.
“I was fortunate to be able to work just down the hall from my father and share an office with my mother,” she says. “I succeeded my mother as head of the Blood Clotting Laboratory.”
But this was not the direction that Sara Israels saw her life taking early on. “When I started medical school (at the University of Manitoba), I said to myself that I would never do hematology,” she recalls. “I thought I would find my own way in a different specialty. It was through my post-graduate studies at Stanford and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto (where her mentor was former Winnipegger Dr. Alvin Zipursky) that I found myself leaning toward hematology and oncology.
“The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree.”
After finishing her training in Toronto, she was invited to return to Winnipeg by Dr. Jon Gerrard (yes, that Jon Gerrard!), who was then opening a research lab in the Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology and was recruiting trainees. “I thought I would come back for a year or two and then move on again,” Israels recalls. “But then, Dr. Agnes Bishop, the head of the Department of Pediatrics, offered me a position on staff as an assistant professor in the faculty. I have been tremendously fortunate that I have been able to combine clinical practice, research and teaching throughout my career.”
She notes that there have been major strides in treating children’s cancers over the last four decades. As recently as the 1960s, she points out, children stricken by leukemia died. Today, more than 80% are cured.
That success rate has been due to two factors, she says: North American-wide collaboration among pediatric oncology researchers to identify the best treatments through clinical trials, and a multidisciplinary team approach –locally – in caring for children with cancer and their families. Team members include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, child life specialists, social workers, occupational and physiotherapists.
On the hematology side, Israels spoke of her research team’s collaborative work with teams at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University investigating blood clotting. “We have a much better understanding how blood clotting happens,” she reports. “That is the first step toward finding an effective treatment for illnesses such as hemophilia.”
She turned over the leadership of the team to Dr. Jayson Stoffman, one of her former students, four years ago. At about the same time, she relinquished the leadership of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and assumed a new role as Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) in the Faculty of Medicine at the U. of M., responsible for faculty development and career advancement.
“It has been particularly gratifying that two of my former students are now my colleagues,” she says.
As it happens, Sara Israels’ father was also one of Mark Prober’s teachers in medical school, as was Dr. Arnold Naimark, who was responsible, along with Drs. George Sisler and Harry Prosen, for inviting him to return to Winnipeg from the University of Cincinnati, where he completed his residency in psychiatry, to start a mental health service for the students of the Faculty of Medicine, for luring Prober back to Winnipeg
Prober says that his ambition growing up was to become a physician. “My model,” he says, “was our family doctor. Through the teaching and mentorship of Dr. Harry Prosen, I became interested in psychiatry. What appeals to me about psychiatry is that it gives one the opportunity to learn about people in depth.”
The medical faculty in Cincinnati was one of the first ones in America to introduce a psychiatric counseling service dedicated to helping medical students and those in residency programs with mental health issues, he notes. Prober returned to Winnipeg in 1973 to found a counseling program for medical students in Manitoba. The Faculty of Medicine was the first medical faculty in Canada to have a counseling service dedicated to the mental heath/illness of medical students - the first such program in Canada!
“When we started this program, there were many who wondered if it was really necessary,” he recalls. “Now people want to know why we are not doing more.”
In 2005, he took the program another step forward with the founding of MD Care, aimed at treating doctors dealing with addictions and mental illness. MD Care is a service for all Manitoba physicians and their immediate families. The educational and clinical service focuses on promotion of emotional and psychiatric well-being of Manitoba’s physicians. There are two main areas of focus: The first is to provide accessible, comprehensive psychiatric care to Manitoba physicians and their dependents. The second mandate is to provide educational sessions on physician health and well-being in locations throughout Manitoba.
“Our team of psychiatrists currently has 270 patients under the MD Care program, including 32 children (under 18) of physicians,” Prober reports.
He also co-founded Doctors Manitoba’s Physicians at Risk program, aimed at treated physicians suffering from addictions or mental illness.
He points out that each individual doctor treats thousands of patients. “Our work with doctors thus indirectly affects tens of thousands of Manitobans,” he says.
He reports that over the past couple of years, Doctors Manitoba has been shifting the focus of treating physicians at risk to the wellness and prevention aspect. That involves helping doctors to deal with stress and avoid burnout. He also notes that similar physician and med student counseling programs are now in place across Canada.
“We are just formalizing a national association,” he says. “We are beginning to develop standards as to what our programs should look like across the country.”
Next month, Prober is cutting back on his own heavy workload (which includes teaching). He says that he will be retiring as head of the psychotherapies training program for the Department of Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine at the Health Sciences Centre on June 30, 2016 – after 40 years in that position - but will continue as head of the MD Care program.
“It’s important to keep active in mind and body so that I can be around longer to enjoy our grandchildren,” he says.

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