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.

Continue reading

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.”

Managing Through Disaster

Written by Vanessa Santilli for Smith Business Insight on Feb. 10

The Essentials

In times of natural disaster or social disruption, standard management practice is to reduce the demands on employees out of compassion and understanding for their well-being. But doctoral student Derin Kent at Smith School of Business says this approach can ignore what many people need most during dark times. Drawing on previously published accounts of how New Yorkers responded to the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center complex, Kent says that continuing everyday work in organizations can actually help some employees find positive meaning in the aftermath of tragedy and cope more effectively. In this conversation with Smith Business Insight, he offers advice for leaders and managers on what this perspective may mean for the workplace.

Work As A Source Of Meaning

The traditional understanding is that if there’s a major disaster or tragedy in society — Sept. 11 attacks, natural disasters, or school shootings, for example — people generally want to spend more time with their families reflecting on their lives as the events trigger stress and loss of meaning. As a result, the public view companies that demand or encourage people to return to work after these events as callous and self-interested. While that’s one valid view, the research shows that people want to respond in some way to disaster, and a lot of people search for meaning through involvement in their work.

For example, using the example of 9/11, investment banking isn’t something that people traditionally view as deeply meaningful work as compared to being a doctor or a volunteer helping with the disaster by donating their time or money. But a lot of investment bankers found that returning to work was their way of fighting back against the terrorists. One man tried to donate blood and help in other ways but was rejected, and he said to his colleagues, Keeping this company running is one way I fight back.

When people lose meaning and feel uncertain, having a routine can help them find a certain level of comfort. But linking those routines to a broader goal is what provides meaning. The investment banker who, prior to the attacks, would have likely been in the job for money and prestige found that his work took on new meaning following 9/11. Keeping the banks running, making trades, and helping the American economy survive the terrorists is what now mattered to him.

Connect Work With The Broader Story

Not everyone would want to respond in this way. It’s an alternative to the norm. But in a time of crisis, employers shouldn’t assume that people want to move away from work. A lot of people, in uncertain times, want to participate. And one of the ways they can participate in society is through their work. Of course it depends on the conditions, but don’t assume that work is not a meaningful place where employees can find a way to be involved. Continue reading

How I Find Balance: Beatrice Ghettuba

Beatrice Ghettuba finds balance through her work with the Council for the Advancement of African Canadians

Written by Vanessa Santilli in CPA Magazine on Jan. 1

It’s important to recognize the triggers that [make me] stressed or to anticipate that I’m getting into a stressful situation and to do something about it. I work out and eat healthy food — except when I was on the campaign trail in the fall. I found myself buying fast food. I did that once and it still haunts me because I always cook my food from scratch.

I ran as a Liberal candidate for the riding of St. Albert-Edmonton in the federal election [but didn’t win]. It was very hectic so I’d do yoga to release tension every morning at the studio next to my campaign office. I’m a bit of a control freak and one lesson I learned while campaigning was that I need to trust people who have been delegated tasks. It made me feel calm throughout the experience.

I’m currently board chair of the Council for the Advancement of African Canadians in Alberta. My role is to drive the governance and the strategic direction of the organization, which focuses on creating opportunities for access and full participation of members of the African community. It’s very involved work. I can’t say I’m very good at planning but I have an overview in my mind of where things need to be. For example, I have a schedule of when I check in with my two grandkids.

I believe in God, so I meditate a lot and I pray a lot. During the election campaign, I’d spend time with friends who would pray with me on the phone and send messages of encouragement. That was very powerful.

To Fur, With Love

Written by Vanessa Santilli in CPA Magazine on Sept. 1

Rita Elias was at a networking event when inspiration struck. “I was wearing a fur vest that [my sister and I] had redesigned for my mom and everybody was asking where I got it,”says Elias, a former financial analyst at L’Oréal Canada.Rita Elias

In October 2014, Montreal-based sisters Rita and Rim took the plunge and launched Eläma — which translates as “the good life”in Finnish — a fur fashion brand made exclusively in Canada and specializing in vests.

Since then, the sisterly duo has faced the dragons on CBC’s Dragons’ Den (scheduled to air this fall); hosted pop-up shops (which take place in short-term rental spaces), including one at a high-end boutique during the Grand Prix in June; and showcased a collection at StyleLab Montreal, a relatively new trade show created by the Fur Council of Canada. In addition, Rim participated in a trade mission in Paris with the Centre de commerce mondial de Montréal (World Trade Centre Montreal), where Montreal-based companies presented their collections to French partners.

“It’s been really encouraging, so we know we’re on the right path,”Elias says of the feedback.

Their objective? To make fur more accessible, says Elias. “It’s no longer just your mom’s long mink coat — it could be a vest, it could be an accessory. And now we’re mixing and matching a lot of things with cashmere, suede and leather.” Continue reading

Learning To Deliver Consistent Healthcare

Written by Vanessa Santilli and Alan Morantz for QSB Insight on Aug. 18

The Essentials

Variation in medical practices and healthcare decisions accounts for a significant part of health system costs. Some of these variations may be due to “weak best practices” that arise from uncertainty and the vagaries of tacit learning — the informal knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person. A study in a U.S. academic hospital by David Chan of Stanford School of Medicine found a large variation in spending on medical tests by residents in general medicine but little variation when the same residents worked in a specialized area such as oncology. Because of the difficulty in codifying general medical decisions, it is less likely that “a common way of doing things that is agreed to be superior to other ways” will take root in a healthcare setting, Chan says. Chan presented his findings at the Economics of Organizations workshop at Queen’s School of Business.

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As in many industries, practice variation is a persistent and worrying phenomenon in healthcare. Variation is seen geographically —  you are twice as likely to have cardiac surgery if you live in Kingston than in Toronto — and within healthcare organizations themselves.

Two explanations are generally used to explain practice variation within institutions. One relates to differences in the skills or preferences of healthcare practitioners, the other to differences in medical “schools of thought.”

A third explanation, however, may hit closer to the mark. According to David Chan of Stanford School of Medicine, the variations may be explained by “weak best practices” that arise from uncertainty and the vagaries of tacit learning — the informal knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person.

To better understand practice variation in a healthcare setting, Chan studied the decisions that went into 3.2 million patient orders (spending on medical tests) made by interns and residents at a large U.S. academic hospital. He traced the spending effects of the same physicians as they progressed through training in different roles on teams and practice environments.

Chan presented his findings at the Economics of Organizations workshop at Queen’s School of Business. Continue reading

So, you want to be a prison doctor?

Work in Canadian jails gives MDs the opportunity to practise good medicine

Written by Vanessa in The Medical Post on May 26

Doctors working in the Canadian penal system must be able to treat a wide range of physical and mental health emergencies. “The scope of pathologies you encounter daily varies from the treatment of a plantar wart to providing palliative care to a patient with terminal-phase cancer,” said Dr. David Lesage, who is employed full-time with Correctional Service Canada at both the medium security Cowansville Institution and the maximum security Donnacona Institution in Quebec.

Dr. Fiona Kouyoumdjian, pictured outside of the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, believes Canadian prisons give doctors the opportunity to work with a population in our own country dealing with human rights concerns. (Photo by John Haney)

Dr. Fiona Kouyoumdjian, pictured outside of the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, believes Canadian prisons give doctors the opportunity to work with a population in our own country dealing with human rights concerns. (Photo by John Haney)

“A large proportion of our practice deals with the assessment and treatment of chronic conditions, such as musculoskeletal pathology, diabetes, heart conditions and chronic mental health problems like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and personality disorders.”

Work in a Canadian prison is done at either the provincial or federal level — and there’s a key difference between the two that ˆ‡†‡ƒ„pertains to the patient population. The federal system is responsible for administering sentences of two or more years for adult offenders, while the provincial systems handle offenders serving less than two years, those who are awaiting sentencing, young offenders and those who are deemed not criminally responsible.

Here are four points to contemplate if you’re considering lending your medical expertise to the prison system.

1. Be ready to stand your ground

In prison, you juxtapose your desire to practise good medicine with a setting that doesn’t see health or medicine as a priority, explained Dr. Ruth Martin, a 17-year veteran of prison clinics withƒ‹•‘ …Ž‹‹…BC Corrections. “Security is their priority,” she said. “So you’re constantly juggling your need to advocate for the patient with how the system functions.” For prison physicians, standing up for patients is just as important as standing ground against questionable patient demands. “There are a lot of patients who have personality and substance abuse disorders, so it’s necessary to be able to set your limits and say no if you think patients are asking for things that are not appropriate or reasonable,” said Dr. Fiona Kouyoumdjian, who works at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, a provincial jail in Hamilton. “A classic example is people who want opioid medication for pain control.” Continue reading