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Canada Doctor used his métier to promote Mideast peace

Dr. Arnold Noyek.

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Dr. Arnold Noyek, a renowned ear, nose and throat specialist who used his métier to promote peace in the Middle East, invariably ended all of his letters and e-mails with the phrase, “Always moving forward.” As a head and neck surgeon at Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto and as the founder of a charitable organization called the Canada International Scientific Exchange Program, moving forward was his modus operandi. He was resolute and optimistic in the face of prejudice, stereotypes and conventional thinking.

“Arnie believed you shouldn’t get weighed down in the past,” said Shawna Novak, a physician who serves as CISEPO’s executive director. “He believed that to work together, we need to create spaces with productive relationships and we needed to be resilient. We may be facing a difficult time in the world right now, for example, but if we get stuck on that, it means we are not looking about taking the next step forward and trying to move toward something better.”

With an ever-present smile, brown eyes behind large-framed glasses and a ferocious work ethic, “Dr. Arnie,” as he was universally known, may have been small of stature but he was a giant in the worlds of medicine and politics. Among his many accomplishments, he spearheaded the now-mandatory hearing tests for infants in Canada and abroad, and each summer – under the umbrella of CISEPO – he brought young doctors from countries such as Jordan, Palestine and Israel to Toronto, where they worked with each other and their Canadian counterparts on medical projects, that invariably led them to recognize what they had in common rather than what kept them apart. Relationships were best forged face to face, he believed, even, or especially, if the people came from places that had been in bitter conflict for decades.

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“Arnie made us constantly challenge ourselves to shake things up,” Dr. Novak recalled. “He was so not satisfied with the status quo approach to things. Another of his favourite sayings was ‘A mind is like a parachute and works best when it’s open.'”

Even after he was diagnosed in 2010 with multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks the bone marrow, and given four to six months to live, Dr. Noyek defied expectations by continuing to live, work and do physiotherapy for years. He refused to accept limits, pushing himself until he could do so no longer. On Dec. 14, surrounded by his family, he died in Toronto at Baycrest Health Sciences. He was 81 years old.

“In my mind, Arnie is like Yoda – a more energetic Yoda for our time, a Yoda of health care and peace-building,” Dr. Novak said. “I see him with his smile, a look of focus and giving his words of wisdom. He would open up his mouth to speak and everyone would stop to listen.”

Arnold Melvyn Noyek was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Oct. 9, 1937, the only child of Bernie, a salesman, and Frieda Noyek. When he was 4, the family immigrated to Canada. In Toronto, he excelled in school and developed a love of toy trains that never left him. As an adult, a room in the basement of his North York home was dedicated to those trains, complete with elaborate communities he built and constantly tinkered with. The result was a miniature world that, like the real one, could be improved upon.

He attended Humewood Community School then moved on to Vaughan Road Collegiate Institute. After doing a two-year pre-med program at the University of Toronto, he was admitted into the institution’s medical school in 1957, graduating with a degree in 1961.

Dr. Noyek never looked back. After a rotating internship at what was then known as New Mount Sinai Hospital, he moved in 1962 to New York to specialize in otolaryngology at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, where he progressed quickly, becoming the chief resident in otolaryngology in 1964.

After another residency in general surgery in Toronto at New Mount Sinai, he embarked on a career that included teaching at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and the Al Quds Nutrition and Health Research Institute at Al Quds University on Israel’s West Bank. He was also the founding director of the Peter A. Silverman Centre for International Health at Mount Sinai and Baycrest.

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He was known for thinking outside the box. When he began his career in otolaryngology, for example, there was no policy on screening infants because no one realized it could be effective and useful. To him, it seemed a commonsensical solution, one that has since become standard practice.

“He was tremendously stubborn in a good way, which helped him change medical policy and to make his way into conflict regions,” Dr. Novak said. “To him, push-back was almost irrelevant, a wind he didn’t pay attention to.”

In 1984, Dr. Noyek founded CISEPO to foster scientific exchanges and understanding between Canada and Israel, but that changed after Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, thus opening up other channels of communication. When his phone rang the following year, King Hussein of Jordan was on the line, wanting to talk about how health care could, and should, be used as a way to build relations between Israelis and Arabs.

Dr. Noyek thought it was a brilliant idea – something that could bring together doctors, nurses, scientists and other health-care professionals in an endeavour to build what his profile on the Dalla Lana School’s website describes as “networks of peaceful professional co-operation across the Arab and Israeli frontier.”

In 1997, a number of Palestinian academics and institutions, including Al-Quds, joined in.

CISEPO accomplished this feat by incorporating the newborn screening model that Dr. Noyek had spearheaded in Canada into the fraught region, where congenital, hereditary deafness was common. In turn, this led to the founding of the first joint Arab-Israeli professional association, called the Middle East Association for Managing Hearing Loss, or MEHA.

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Hundreds of child care clinics have been set up in Israel, Jordan and Palestine, with hearing aids and surgery offered as needed. Just as important, CISEPO has managed over the years to keep senior academics, health workers and government officials focused on talking about what’s important, namely, the health

Dr. Harvey Skinner, a professor of psychology and global health at York University who currently chairs the CISEPO board, first travelled to the Middle East with Dr. Noyek in 2000.

“Here you had bombs falling but people were talking,” he said. “The experience totally opened my eyes to the level of co-operation that was going on between all these groups. I realized that we can only move forward through negotiation and peace. That’s how I got hooked on Arnie’s crazy, beautiful idea.”

Along the way, Dr. Noyek married his childhood sweetheart, Judy, with whom he had three sons and two daughters. Together, they were deeply involved in the Jewish community, in their synagogue, Adath Israel and in the tradition of tzedakah, or charitable giving. Among his numerous awards and accolades, in 2013, he was named an Officer of Order of Canada. He proudly wore the pin wherever he went, no matter if it was on a button-down shirt or an old sweater.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that wore it on his pyjamas, he loved it so much” Dr. Novak said. “I hope we can continue moving forward in his honour. He loved to say that he wanted to keep people sweet and keep them smiling – and we want to continue doing just that.”

Along with his wife, Dr. Noyek leaves his five children and 14 grandchildren.

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