Silence is indeed golden


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register

In today’s world, people are mostly foreign to stillness.

Being continually busy is the norm, and finding time to do absolutely nothing but sit back, relax and be still is a novel concept. But hard as it may be to find time for stillness, it’s a practice that can be used to increase our focus and direction — and to build a deeper connection with God in our lives.

Travel writer Pico Iyer is an expert on staying busy and being still.

“Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury,” reflected Iyer in his book, The Art of Stillness. “Nowadays, it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize.”

Iyer would know — he’s made a life of travelling the world. It was through his habit of movement that he found himself a visitor at a Benedictine monastery in California, where he first engaged in the pursuit of stillness. He’s since visited more than 80 times and has found a silence that has enriched his life.  

Society’s collective need for downtime has surfaced through a travel trend called “silence tourism.” According to an article published last summer in Condé Naste Traveler, “being quiet is the newest adventure trend” as people flock to vacation destinations that promise a digital detox from the demands of a 24/7 culture. 

There’s science behind the claim that silence — a key to stillness — is beneficial to health. In 2011, a World Health Organization report called noise pollution the “modern plague.” The report found overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.

In the Catholic tradition, the benefits of silence are not new. Silent retreats are one means widely available for people to take time to be still, unwind and re-orient their life’s direction. Another tool that can bring an encounter with the art of stillness is Christian meditation, often described as a “prayer of the heart.”

Aside from the myriad spiritual benefits, the Canadian Christian Meditation Community’s website lists a wide array of associated health benefits, including: improved attention, lower blood pressure, a boosted immune system, reduced anxiety and depression and improvement in coping strategies and emotional processing.

To meditate, sit upright and breathe calmly. Then, close your eyes and in your mind and heart repeat the Aramaic word “Maranatha.” It’s an ancient Christian prayer word that means, “Come, Lord Jesus.” While you do this, pay particular attention to your breathing and listen to the sound of the mantra (to be recited as four syllables).

“Let go of all thoughts (even good thoughts), images and other words,” wrote Fr. John Main, an Oblate who played a major role in the rediscovery of this prayer tradition once practised by early Christian monks. “Don’t fight your distractions: let them go by saying your mantra faithfully, gently and attentively and returning to it as soon as you realize you have stopped saying it or when your attention wanders.”

It may sound easy — after all, you are kicking back and relaxing — but in practice it’s not that straightforward. Even after multiple attempts, I still found it difficult. It feels counterintuitive to sit still in silence and let your thoughts pass by. But keeping up the practice has led me to moments of much-needed tranquility. 

Christian meditation is essentially the discipline of finding time and training yourself to be still, which, in turn, helps focus your thoughts on God — even if it’s just for a few minutes a day. Cutting through the external noise is the first step, but there is also internal noise and distractions that can be just as loud. 

Praying the rosary is another tried and true method for becoming still and connecting with God. Praying the rosary in the silence of your home is one option, or you might try putting your rosary in your pocket and taking it on a walk with you, swapping your headphones for the decades of the rosary.

There are many ways to achieve stillness but they all require much self-control. But it’s definitely a worthy pursuit as a means to counter the distractions and overstimulation that is part of daily living.

“God hidden within me,” wrote the late, great theologian Thomas Merton. “I find Him by hiding in the silence in which He is concealed.”

My 2018 includes less time with my phone

Woman texting on her phone and using social media.
Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on January 20, 2018 

Spending more time with family, making forgiveness a habit and being less judgmental could help you make good on one of the most popular 2018 New Year’s resolutions.

According to U.S.-based pollster Marist, “being a better person” was rated a top lifestyle change our American neighbours hope to make over the coming year. Among the many ways we can improve our behaviour — in order to be become a better citizen of the world while also showing some self-care — is to develop a healthier relationship with social media and, by extension, our distraction-inducing smartphones. Without a doubt, getting a handle on our collective addiction to social media will help on the journey to being the best versions of ourselves.At its best, social media helps us connect with our community, stay informed of current events, advance professional interests and affect change. For example, we’ve recently seen social media serving as a platform for social good through the ongoing #MeToo campaign. It has empowered victims of sexual harassment and violence to share their stories and hold predators to account.

But at its worst, social media can be a battleground for cyber-bullying, a constant distraction that can harm family life and work habits, a platform to encourage narcissism (the chronic selfie poser) and, in some cases, even cause depression and anxiety.

We can pretend that a compulsion to check our phones constantly is normal — but it’s not. According to recent research, Americans check their phones for updates every 12 minutes. That’s 80 times per day for someone who sleeps eight hours. I suspect I’m like many Canadians who match that statistic, reaching for my phone unconsciously throughout the day, every day.

This is no coincidence. Social media was created to be addictive. Former Facebook president Sean Parker admitted as much in an interview last November.

“The thought process that went into building these applications … was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” he said. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post.

“It’s a social validation feedback loop. It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

He also added: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

So how do we reap the benefits of social media and the convenience of smartphones without compromising our well-being and relationships? According to Yvan Mathieu, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, to better navigate the interwebs we need to apply principles of Christian life and keep in mind the first and second commandments — love of God and love of neighbour.

“Let’s consider this threefold question,” he advises. “In one given day, how many hours do I dedicate to social media, how many hours do I dedicate to prayer and how many hours do I dedicate to my family and friends? There has to be some kind of balance between those three aspects of one’s life.”

While it’s valid to argue that social media lets us connect with family and friends who live far away, we need to be honest with ourselves and understand how this means of communication, instead of helping us get closer to loved ones, often makes us feel isolated, he adds.

As we work towards striking a proper balance in our social media usage, we should also let how we use social media be guided by the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. “Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

As we establish our priorities in the new year, we should make sure social media takes a back seat. I know I will. And if I fail, I can always turn off my wi-fi.

To Rome, With Love


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for CPA Magazine on December 1, 2017

Rome, the capital city of Italy, is a hub of history, culture and business. The fourth-most-populous city in the European Union, it boasts 2.87 million inhabitants, with its greater metropolitan area home to upward of 4.3 million.

The Eternal City’s economy is diverse, with thriving technology, communications, commerce and service sectors, including tourism. Most of Rome’s employers are part of the service sector. One of the biggest employers is the government, as many of its agencies and ministries are located in the city.

Tourism, however, is the leading industry in the city’s economy, attracting millions of visitors annually. As well, Rome is a popular site for conferences and trade fairs; with venues capable of accommodating 40,000 visitors, it boasts the largest site of such events in Europe.

This year, the Italian economy will grow by 1.4% — its strongest performance in a decade. Rome’s importance is further underscored by the fact that, in 2015, its labour productivity was 20% higher than in the rest of the country.


The following etiquette points have been taken from the Government of Canada website for the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service.

1. Close encounters. Italians feel comfortable standing closer together than the normal North American distance of two feet. Don’t back away.

2. Avoid controversial topics. Subjects to steer clear of include religion, politics and the Second World War.

As well, keep in mind that it can be considered insulting to ask someone you have just met at a social gathering about his or her profession.

3. Be aware of the Company’s internal structure. Corporations in Italy often have a horizontal chain of authority. Italians call it a cordata (a team of mountain climbers on the same rope). To facilitate business, one should have a reliable contact who has full knowledge of the company’s inner workings.

4. Take your time. Negotiating is often lengthy. A sense of urgency can weaken your bargaining position.

5. Business entertaining. Italian hospitality often means dining in a restaurant. No matter how you feel, refusing an invitation will offend.

6. Look the part. In the business world, good clothes are a badge of success. Women dress with quiet, expensive elegance while men stick to suits and ties.


1. On global data organization Numbeo’s cost of living index, Rome ranked 147th out of 511 cities surveyed.

2. Amazon is currently investing heavily in Italy — with a 60,000-sq.-m. “fulfillment centre” underway near Rome, forecasted to create 1,200 permanent jobs within several years.


1. Know the lingo. Those at larger companies speak English, while local businesspeople and wholesalers will often need an interpreter.

2. City tax. All hotels in Italy now charge a city tax, which varies. The fee is added to your total and it ranges from three euros per night per person for one- or two-star hotels to seven euros per night for five-star establishments.


Food for thought before tossing that old banana

Our weekly household waste is often filled with foods that still edible. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Love Food Hate Waste)

Our weekly household waste is often filled with foods that still edible. In Canada, 40 per cent of the food we produce nationally ends up in the garbage. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Love Food Hate Waste)

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register 

It is shocking to learn that $31 billion worth of food is wasted in Canada every year. Looked at another way, what Canadians throw away is enough to feed one quarter of the world’s 800,000 hungry people, according to the United Nations.

We are a wasteful nation. About 40 per cent of food produced nationally is thrown into the garbage, according to the Toronto Food Policy Council. Half of this waste is due to shortsighted habits of consumers.

For instance, the baby spinach packaged in the too-big container I didn’t get around to finishing, or the bananas that became slightly too ripe for my liking. That may not sound like much, but a little bit wasted every day adds up to a lot of waste over the weeks and months.

How much waste? Canadian households waste, on average, $28 worth of food each week. That’s almost $1,500 per household, almost enough to feed eight starving people for an entire year, the U.N. tells us.

Pope Francis has said that “throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and hungry.” He makes a sobering point as, locally, food bank usage is on the rise, helping more than 850,000 Canadians every month, according to a study from Food Banks Canada.

While food waste happens all along the food supply chain (from suppliers to retailers to consumers), it’s important to be conscious of the waste that each of us is personally responsible for — and to work to reduce it. As Laudato Si’ reminds us, we are called to be stewards of the Earth, not reckless consumers.

Changing old habits doesn’t have to be difficult. In my personal quest to become less wasteful, I’ve come across several helpful tips, such as this one from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “The next time you make a recipe that can be easily frozen, make a double batch and donate one to your local soup kitchen.”

This tip can be modified easily to help reduce food waste whenever it looks as if you’re going to have groceries that won’t get used up. If you have too much food, make plans to share it with those less fortunate. Locally, the Good Shepherd Ministries runs a “Provide-a-Meal” program in which volunteers commit to donating one casserole per month. Over the course of the year, that adds up to more than 100,000 main course servings.

Or if you have food that’s nearing the end of its shelf life, use your imagination and find other ways to use it. For example, leftover bread can be turned into breadcrumbs; overly ripe bananas can be baked into banana bread or chopped into a smoothie; lemons that are starting to shrivel can become a homemade salad dressing, roasted with a meat dish or juiced into lemonade. Get creative and keep yourself interested in foods that, although no longer at peak freshness, are still quite edible. Continue reading

Research can never break my canine bond

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on Oct. 1

My Siberian Husky, Stella, who lived to the ripe old age of 16.

My Siberian Husky, Stella, who lived to the ripe old age of 16.

Among the many compelling narratives coming out of recent hurricane disasters were stories about displaced residents saving their pets — and rescuing those of complete strangers — amidst treacherous flooding.

From a fleeing Texan saving a dog clinging to the guardrail at the side of a water-logged highway to the story of a Houston woman who spent 14 hours in her attic with 21 dogs — four her own, the rest left behind by neighbours — until she was rescued via boat by a couple of Good Samaritans; these testaments to the love our neighbours to the south have for their canine companions has been unfolding in real-time across social media.

We, Canadians, also love our dogs (and cats). Hockey may be Canada’s national pastime, but pets have become our national obsession. In recent years, they’ve become increasingly important to us — likely a result of the growing number of single-person households, aging population and couples marrying and having children later in life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “animals are God’s creatures and He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence, they bless Him and give Him glory. Thus, men owe them kindness.”

stellaAnd kindness we definitely show them. According to a Canada-wide survey commissioned by the Canadian Animal Health Institute, pet ownership is on the rise. The latest figures, released at the beginning of this year, report that there are 7.6 million dogs considered household pets (up from 6.4 million in 2014) and 8.8 million household cats (up from an estimated seven million).

But pet love is nothing new. What has changed the conversation in recent years are the copious amounts of research on the ways in which our relationship with dogs and cats is improving our collective mental and physical health. This is why “pet therapy” has become so common at hospitals, long-term care homes, universities and even in some workplaces. On September 11, the Toronto courts will be welcoming their first facility dog, Iggy, to comfort traumatized children through court appearances.

Much research has shown that our four-legged friends can help to decrease anxiety, loneliness and depression and help with prevention and treatment of a whole slew of physical maladies, such as heart disease, asthma and obesity.

Growing up with two dogs that lasted a combined total of 28 years — first there was Blackie, a rough and tumble German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever mix with a penchant for running away, followed by Stella, a Siberian Husky with a big personality and a knack for catching unsuspecting birds with the misfortune of finding themselves within her radius — I always had unfettered access to unconditional animal love.

These companions ushered me through growing pains: from awkward teenage years and rotating friends to heartbreak and career transitions. No matter how bad your day, a hug from your judgment-free dog somehow makes you feel like everything is going to be alright. (At the time, little did I know this is because as simple an action as petting your dog can increase levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin in your brain and lower production of cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone.)

Continue reading

Comment: Bride’s best laid plans melt in Pope’s hand


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on July 28

Rome in June is notoriously hot. But Rome in June wearing a wedding veil is even hotter.

Four days after tying the knot in Toronto, my husband Daniele and I were in St. Peter’s Square amid a sea of newlywed lace, chiffon and satin. Along with about 100 other sposi novelli (newlyweds) from around the world, we sweated it out while waiting for Pope Francis to bless our new marriages. (All the marriages were less than two months fresh as that’s the requirement for attendance.)

Seated to the left of the stage at Pope Francis’ weekly general audience, we could see him above a crush of parasols, umbrellas and wide-brimmed sun hats. There was no breeze, only a collective whir from sun-soaked newlyweds furiously fanning each other. I had no idea that a short time later I would be holding the Pope’s hand.

Time crawled by as we waited for the audience to begin and the morning temperature fast approached 30 degrees. Three hours after we arrived in the piazza, the reading began. It was translated into several languages and focused on the example of the saints.

When the general audience ended, some of the newlyweds started to form a line. The opportunity for an individual blessing or a chance to be close to the Pope largely depends on how many newlyweds are in attendance and how busy the Pope is on a particular day, as I was told when calling to book the tickets. With so many excited couples in the square, we figured it was a longshot, yet we shuffled into the queue with high hopes.


The line led us to steps behind the stage and, after waiting about 20 minutes, we could see the Pope making his way towards where our group was gathered. As he got closer, Daniele and I rehearsed a few words we’d prepared just in case we got a chance to speak with him.

Grazie per essere forte e noi saremo forte con te,” was our Italian script, which roughly translates to, “Thank you for being strong and we will be strong with you.”

The Pope is always asking his flock to keep him in their prayers, so we wanted him to know we were with him and to encourage him to keep up his good work because his daily actions embody the Gospel values of love, justice and love of neighbour — to name only a few.

Vatican view 2

As the Pope arrived in front of our group, a space in front of me suddenly opened up. It wasn’t big enough for me to squeeze into the front row but, instinctively, I reached out and, wondrously, I was holding his hand through the crowd. No word of a lie, time seemed to stop. Then I heard Daniele excitedly urging me to share with Pope Francis the words we had prepared.

The chatty newlyweds around us were suddenly silent. He held my hand but I was still a couple of feet away from him. He was smiling at me. It felt too impersonal to just shout out. I hesitated.

Then, overwhelmed by the moment, I blurted out, “Ciao!”

So much for our script.

Still, I’d like to believe he heard me and that his smile widened slightly as a result, but all I know for certain is that I was fighting back tears of joy.

The rest was a blur. I let go of his hand, then found myself holding it a second time before he continued to make his way among the couples.

To say I felt his presence is an understatement. His friendly demeanour is humbling to experience and witness firsthand. His beaming, infectious smile made Daniele and I feel that he was genuinely happy to see us all. We couldn’t stop smiling.

Vatican 3

The Pope exchanged words and, no doubt, dispensed individual blessings to the newlyweds fortunate enough to be wedged in the front row. We watched for a few minutes before taking as many selfies as possible (albeit poorly executed) with the Pope in the background. (Maybe the selfie stick so many vendors tried peddling to us wouldn’t have been such a bad investment after all.)

Walking back through the crowded streets amidst shouts of “Auguri, sposi!” (“Congratulations, newlyweds”) — since we hadn’t made a wardrobe change — we picked up a panino and pizza and took a cab back to our hotel.

The experience was surreal. It was time for a siesta.

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Privacy Privation: Searching For A New Data Culture

barcodes_140368690Written by Vanessa Santilli for Smith Business Insight on July 12

Given how organizations harvest data from our online activities like there’s no tomorrow, you would think that privacy concerns are a thing of the past. That’s not the case: how personal information is handled remains a contentious area that is far from resolved.

As an industry insider, Mitchell Merowitz says there’s a way that this tension point can be eased, but only if organizations accept and address the bigger picture.

“People are talking about privacy and data but, at the same time, they either don’t understand it or are not taking accountability for it,” says Merowitz, vice-president of corporate affairs at LoyaltyOne, a firm that designs and implements coalition loyalty programs, customer analytics, and loyalty services for global clients.

Merowitz knows about privacy. In addition to being responsible for corporate reputation and regulatory and legislative affairs, he spends a good deal of time on global privacy practices, overseeing the company’s database governance and international consumer privacy and data protection policies.

Cultural Transformation

As far as Merowitz is concerned, organizations need to transform the way they think about privacy and data. “The way we do that is by focusing on culture,” he told attendees at a culture of analytics conference organized by the Scotiabank Centre for Customer Analytics at Smith School of Business.

One of the first ways to bring about this change is by altering the domain in which data resides. “Today, privacy or data is in the hands of a privacy office, an IT office, a legal office, a risk management office, or a compliance office,” he says. “But we as privacy stakeholders made a mistake by allowing this to happen.”

Privacy is not only a business imperative, Merowitz says, but a social imperative as well. He says data leadership should be vested in C-Suite executives who are directly accountable to internal and external stakeholders. His rationale is simple: this governance model would better resonate with individuals and marketplaces, and essentially re-frame data privacy in aspirational terms rather than a matter of compliance or risk.

“If we transitioned from a protective and defensive environment and we talked about data and privacy in such a way as to further individual interests, societal goals, and objectives, we’ll take individual accountability and interest in data to the next level. We need to think proactively and positively.” Merowitz outlines three additional principles that should be at the core of a new and sustainable approach to customer data privacy.


Discussing the concept of ownership tends to upset businesspeople, says Merowitz, but it is a critical topic for the good of our collective future. Around the world, consumers are pushing back and affirming that they own their data. “(They’re saying) I may have given an organization consent to use it, but the data is mine. It’s about time that organizations around the globe recognize this.” Continue reading

Ministry ensures no one has to grieve alone

be47a1eaf8377c89a47cf9085948d8d6_xlWritten by Vanessa Santilli for The Catholic Register on Nov. 7

Coping with the loss of a loved one can be an isolating experience — but it’s not a road
you have to walk alone, thanks to the support of bereavement ministries.

“One of the goals for a parish bereavement ministry program is that no member of the faith community will grieve alone,” said Saulina Amaral, who helps parishes start or enhance a Ministry of Consolation and Hope through the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office of Formation for Discipleship. “The compassion of a loving God should be experienced by all who lose a loved one, through the care and concern of parish members.”

Through the Ministry of Consolation and Hope, bereavement ministers provide support by attending the vigil services and funeral and helping the family with the funeral reception. Post-funeral, the ministers — most often those who have also experienced the death of a loved one — send out cards, make phone calls, meet with individuals needing support, organize liturgies of remembrance and prayer services, offer bereavement support groups and even make referrals, when necessary.

The ministry is set up at the parish level, so programs will vary, said Amaral. The Office of Formation for Discipleship provides training to ministers based on the Order of Christian Funerals, which equips them with the tools and information to offer effective and compassionate support.

In addition to helping those grieving, these ministers also support pastors and priests.

“It can be difficult for priests to meet the needs of all the grieving, especially in the larger parishes,” said Amaral. “With a bereavement ministry, it is possible for the priests to continue in their role of meeting the spiritual needs of the grieving while assisted by trained bereavement ministers.”

Another source of support is New Beginnings, a ministry of Catholic Family Services ( that helps those dealing with loss because of death, separation or divorce. Its bereavement ministry encourages the formation of parish-based peer support groups by providing resources, training and ongoing support.

“We are presently working on new ways to support our parishes through groups for those individuals and families dealing with loss to encourage them to develop in faith and to be able to find hope and a sense of belonging in their church,” said Alex Lopechuk of Catholic Family Services, who is a registered social worker. “I sincerely hope we can increasingly reach out to the wider community so that those who have grown apart from the Catholic faith can again see it as a place of acceptance and welcome.”

New Beginnings also offers retreats and hosts a series of seminars and inspirational talks. “This is a time to receive new insights and coping strategies to help live life more effectively,” added Lopechuk.

He sees the impact that New Beginnings can have in people’s lives through the feedback he receives, like this one: “This has been one of the most liberating and uplifting experiences I have had in my life.”

(Santilli is a writer and communications professional in Toronto.)

It’s in the giving that Jean Vanier has received

Written by Vanessa Santilli for The Catholic Register on Sept. 3

A well-known line from the Peace Prayer of St. Francis wisely tells us “it is in giving that we receive.” This mantra encapsulates the incredible life of spiritual giant Jean Vanier, now 87, chronicled in Michael Higgins’ biography Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart.

image001-755499Widely considered a living saint, Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche communities where those with developmental disabilities live alongside those without. What started in 1964 in Trosly, France, with Vanier and three companions has blossomed over the years into an international community of homes and day settings in 30 countries, including Canada. This book provides readers with insights from every stage of L’Arche’s history.

Higgins’ 122-page book is just one contribution to the People of God series, which tells stories of larger than life Catholics such as Oscar Romero and Thomas Merton. It is an inspiring read, both eloquently written and concise. It offers readers a detailed account of events that led to the genesis of the L’Arche movement and the key players that inspired and guided Vanier on his journey from naval officer to academic and beyond.

The history is brought to life by quotes from Vanier himself which illustrate his motivation. For example, during Vanier’s first experience of living in community, we read: “For far too long, nobody had been interested in listening to them or in helping them make choices and become more responsible for their lives. In fact, their needs were exactly the same as mine: to be loved and to love, to make choices and to develop their abilities.”

Logician of the Heart also features a chapter outlining Vanier’s first impressions of John Paul II, which is a particular treat as these two spiritual heavyweights shared a moment in time. When, at the invitation of the pope, Vanier participated in the Synod of the Laity in Rome, we read of Vanier admitting that he spent much of his time watching John Paul and how impressed he was with the way he listened to each and every speaker without saying a word.

The book is chock full of interesting details. Among these, Vanier’s grandmother shared a spiritual director with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, he chose to enter the Royal Naval College at the age of 13 amidst the backdrop of the Second World War. And the year he worked as a popular ethics instructor at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College before returning to France was the very same year that L’Arche was founded.

While Higgins’ biography captures the details, he also clearly conveys the spirituality of the wounded to which Vanier has dedicated his life. It’s a countercultural and refreshing worldview. Higgins breaks down Vanier’s theology for the layperson. In doing so, this book serves as a call to action for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to recognize the inherent tenderness of the disabled as a direct link to Jesus. This ode to Vanier passes with flying colours.

Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart by Michael W. Higgins (Novalis, paperback, 122 pages, $15.95)

(Santilli is a writer in Toronto.)

International Outreach continues St. Joseph’s Sisters mission to poor

Written by Vanessa Santilli for The Catholic Register on March 27

Dr. Peace Bagasha, a Ugandan kidney specialist, is furthering her training through the International Outreach Program of St. Joseph’s Health System.

Dr. Peace Bagasha, a Ugandan kidney specialist, is furthering her training through
the International Outreach Program of St. Joseph’s Health System.

Dr. Clement Okello is one of only three hematologists in Uganda. With a population of 35 million, it’s an overwhelming workload. As a Roman Catholic, Okello says his service as a doctor is an extension of the healing mission of Jesus. “I derive my strength from seeking him in prayers.”

Through St. Joseph’s Health System’s International Outreach Program, Okello has been given the opportunity to further his knowledge of hematology, the study of blood-related diseases, as an advanced level of training isn’t available back home.

“I will now be able to provide better care to patients,” says Okello, who works at the Uganda Cancer Institute at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, the country’s capital city.

Founded 30 years ago, the International Outreach program runs out of St. Joseph’s Health System and brings doctors from Uganda, Haiti and Guyana to train in Hamilton. There, doctors train doctors who learn the latest in Canadian medicine to help improve patient care in their home countries.

In 2016, a total of eight doctors from abroad will take part: five from Uganda, including Okello, and three from Guyana.

The program also sends Canadian doctors abroad to train local doctors, partnering with universities, medical schools and teaching hospitals in countries that need more specialists.

Since the program’s creation three decades ago, more than 100 physicians have been trained, says Alan Sharpe, director of development at International Outreach.

The missionary spirit of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Hamilton — whose motto is ‘it is a privilege to serve the poor’ — lives on through the program, he adds. The sisters had an emphasis on serving the poor and sick, regardless of race, gender, religion or social status.

“We train physicians regardless of their ability to pay,” explains Sharpe. “We cover the expense of bringing the physicians to Canada and we pay for their stay while here. We do not charge them for their training.”

Another physician currently training in St. Joseph’s Health System in Hamilton is Dr. Peace Bagasha, who works as a nephrologist in Uganda — a specialist in kidneys.

In Uganda, where she works at Mulago Hospital, she says that end-stage Kidney disease, treatable in Canada via dialysis or a kidney transplant, is equivalent to a death sentence.

“This is because they cannot afford dialysis,” says Bagasha. “Because of the limited nephrologists, there is very scanty chronic kidney disease care available to patients.”

When she wraps up her time in Hamilton this June, she hopes to be able to implement holistic kidney care in Uganda. “I want to teach medical school residents about kidney diseases and maybe one day we might be able to set up this model of a fellowship program so it can be available to more Ugandans.”

Like Okello, one of the greatest challenges in Uganda is serving a massive patient volume with very limited resources — so she’s grateful for the opportunity to hone her skills.

“This experience has given me exposure to an advanced healthcare system that is very efficient in ensuring excellent patient care and followup so they don’t fall through the cracks. I have really appreciated the value of coordination in bringing all the players in the healthcare system together.”