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The doctor is in: Q & A with Sunnybrook COVID-19 doctor, and new OISE graduate, Ariel Lefkowitz 

May 28, 2020

By Perry King


Dr. Ariel Lefkowitz (left), a Sunnybrook COVID-19 doctor and new OISE graduate, pictured with his two-year-old son and wife.


It’s never a dull moment for Dr. Ariel Lefkowitz.

The Sunnybrook Hospital doctor recently documented an intense two-week stretch on the coronavirus frontlines for Toronto Life. As that fight continues, he is juggling life with a two-year-old son. But, in an incredible effort, Dr. Lefkowitz was also able to complete his Master of Education degree from OISE this spring.

Dr. Lefkowitz, who joins the 900-member OISE Class of 2020, spoke to OISE News – on his bicycle ride home from work, no less – about why he chose to pursue a degree in education, how he juggled his medical career and parenthood with graduate studies, and his growth as a person.

This Q & A has been edited for length. This is what he had to say.

Why did you want a Master of Education? What were the factors going into it and why did OISE become that answer for you?

I finished my internal medicine training and was interested in pursuing a career in academic medicine. I love medical education, and I love teaching medical students and residents – which I started early on during my residency. So, in choosing the graduate degree that would accompany my medical degree (a prerequisite for entering academic medicine), I was interested in something that would give me a theoretical and practical approach to medical education. And my interests I think are unique or diverse in the sphere of medicine.

I did my undergrad in philosophy, math and computer science. So, the sorts of things that I've been interested in, they're probably not your average doctor’s. I’ve done things in ethics, humanities, humanism and communication. Those have been my educational interests.

And the OISE Master of Education program resonated with me because what I expected to get, and what I did get, was a really strong theoretical – in addition to practical – approach (the opportunity to explore a wide range of thinkers that I hadn’t had time to explore during my medical training).

I was able to take some really wonderful and stimulating classes. And I’ve already been able to apply it both in theory and in practice, because I’m doing medical education simultaneously.

Do you feel like you were trying to better understand the theoretical, to bring some completeness to the education that you've been able to have so far?

I think there’s a range of what makes an academic physician, in terms of pure theory and scientific discovery versus on-the-ground clinical work. I really value what’s often called Pasteur’s quadrant.

Niels Bohr is the poster child for theory without practice – studying the structure of the atoms. And Thomas Edison is the paradigm of practical application without much interest towards theory development.

Whereas Louis Pasteur was an immunologist and physician who went back and forth between the theoretical and the practical – one informing the other. He was the father of immunology, and at the same time was developing practical vaccines and the pasteurization of milk and all the rest.

I think that’s a cool place to be. I really enjoy how my clinical work and my experience teaching have informed my intellectual pursuit of theory development, and exploring how theory can be applied in an actionable way to the practice of medicine and medical education. It is super fulfilling and rewarding.

That’s a really good point. I was going to ask you about how your work directly applies here. What do you feel you’ve taken at OISE that has been directly applicable?

[Laughs.] So certainly not everything, but, you know, there are courses that jump out to me as ones that sparked my imagination in that regard.

I took philosophy of education with Professor Lauren Bialystok. As somebody with a background in philosophy, I was thrilled with the opportunity to explore how those might come together, and how that might actually apply. One of the papers I wrote for that class was called “Can doctors be taught virtue?”, which uses ancient Greeks like Plato to explore the theoretical possibility of teaching doctors virtue – something that we claim in medical education to want to do and actually do.

We also showcased a program of our colleague in Israel who uses Nel Noddings’ Ethics of Care as a model toward improving the caring of developing physicians by making medical students feel cared for – the theory being that you can’t care for others if you don’t feel cared for first.

That’s a philosophical theoretical perspective being pushed completely into the practical realm with a philosophical backing and empirical evidence to back it up. That to me kind of typifies what I love about where I’m trying to carve a role out of medical education.

I'm trying to get a picture of what your days would look like at Sunnybrook and the kind of tutelage relationship that you would want to form with residents and young doctors – and how these kinds of relationships are a crucial part of the work that you do.

Yeah, you know, I think that those ideas that I was drawn to during my masters were ideas that were already close to my heart. In my practice, I try to model good communication, teaching others how to communicate better and give insights. I think one thing that’s really critical [to being a leader] is having the humility to know that you can always improve.

I have tried to highlight instances where I haven’t done well, because no one can mimic a superhuman. But I think seeing where oneself falls short is theoretically and practically a critical step in getting better.


"My son is delightful and so resilient, and has not skipped a beat through this crisis. He’s really thriving despite everything," explains Lefkowitz who juggled grad school and medicine with parenthood.

Now that sounds like you’ve gotten a lot out your time at OISE. Have you taken a moment to kind of understand how you’ve grown as a person, as a professional – and with all these other hats that you wear?

For the past few years, but especially since December, it’s been very challenging to do all my schoolwork and clinical work. I was simultaneously completing a research fellowship at the Wilson Centre, which is a centre of medical education. So, I haven’t had a lot of time for reflection.

Something that I didn’t include in the [Toronto Life] article was the fact that four of those 14 days on my way home from Sunnybrook I would put one headphone in my ear and, on my bike home, would join the Zoom session for my last four classes of my masters.

It was Tuesday and Wednesday evening with Professor Diane Farmer and Professor Megan Boler. The COVID ward and the story that I told was very much intertwined with the final days of my masters and my professors were extremely understanding and certainly recognized the stress I was under.

I can understand that too. But I mean, I was going to ask you what the secret sauce is? How did you juggle grad school, medicine, and your son too? Where do you begin to find the motivation?

COVID notwithstanding, prior to this when somebody said, “What are you up to?” I would either tell them or defer the question because it’s just too much. And they would say, “But do you like what you’re doing?” And I would say, “Yes, I like all 19 things that I'm doing!” [Laughs.]

It was objectively way too much but one motivation is the fact that I loved all the things that I was pursuing. I love clinical work – like I’m very fortunate to be in a Socratic job, where you choose one job you love, you’ll never work another day in your life. It’s not completely true but it’s something that I really enjoy, I really love.

And each of the projects that I devoted myself to I also really enjoyed, so that helped, even though at times it felt like too much.

I have an absolutely incredible support system. My wife is outstanding – much more impressive than me, an absolute superhuman. My son is delightful and so resilient, and has not skipped a beat through this crisis. He’s really thriving despite everything. And my family and friends are wonderful.

I really couldn’t believe how many people reached out offering help, thanking us, bringing unprompted gifts to our house – it was absolutely heartwarming and something that we really needed emotionally.

Did your time at OISE give you added value in terms of how you thought about these COVID times, or how you've been able to approach everything you do at Sunnybrook – with a little bit more empathy or some other qualities?

I took several classes in the social justice education department and I think that I see everything differently now. And that includes everything in COVID.

COVID is this lens that brings into contrast, stark contrast, the inequities of society, all the vulnerabilities that everyone, from the highest to the lowest rungs of the social ladder, is secretly hiding. It shows how undervalued and over reliant we are on the real frontline workers – people who have been doing dangerous unpaid work this whole time. The way in which COVID inordinately affects those who are racial minorities and of low socioeconomic status – all the existing social vulnerabilities exacerbate this medical disease.

I think that my understanding of the social world and inequities within is so, so much from my studies at OISE and nothing could be a harsher, more poignant case study than everything that has been going on through this crisis.

Truly, and I feel like, now you have the experience to back up the theory! If another pandemic comes up, whenever that is, maybe that’s the insight that we need in order to navigate whatever comes next.

I think that if we want to survive as a species, we better take some really harsh lessons from COVID – not just during the next pandemic, but in peace time when we have the opportunity to put society back together-- not to what it was before but to what it could be. I believe we can take some positives away from this very, very negative period.

But, you know what? You got here. Your convocation is coming up. It should be celebrated. So congratulations.

Thank you. I appreciate that. I want to thank my peers and professors, who have been so supportive and compassionate before and during this pandemic. It’s an honour to have studied with such thoughtful and engaged people.


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