TORONTO —Marc Ginsburg, 33, has wanted to become a doctor since he was 10 years old.
After getting a master’s degree as a nurse practitioner from the University of Toronto and completing two out of four years of medical school abroad, Ginsburg was shocked to find himself at the other end of the stethoscope.
From left, Marc Ginsburg, with his son Yosi, wife Gillian and daughter Miriam.
While studying for an exam last summer, he fell ill and discovered that he had cancer.
Ginsburg began his career in health care at Mount Sinai Hospital in cardiology, where he became one of the charge nurses and worked in the Intensive Care Unit.
He was working to obtain his master’s degree at the University of Toronto to become a nurse practitioner when he was accepted to medical school abroad.
“At that point, I had applied to medical school six years in a row. I didn’t get accepted anywhere in Canada for those six years. And I applied everywhere. I always said seven years would be my cut off, so thank God,” said Ginsburg, who is Orthodox.
With his wife, Gillian, six months pregnant, Ginsburg travelled to Bulgaria for his first year at the Medical University of Varna.
And with a newborn son, the Ginsburg family transferred to the University of Sint Eustatius School of Medicine in the Caribbean for his second year. At both schools, Ginsburg was at the top of his class.
In August 2007, he returned to Toronto and began to prepare for the United States Medical Licensing Exams, of which there are three.
“So I’m studying for the step one exam, and after about 21/2 to three weeks of studying… I had a weird chest discomfort, a little difficulty swallowing… I thought it was school-related stress getting close to the end, and I didn’t fit the age group for anything sinister,” he said.
“I don’t drink, don’t smoke, I’m generally a very healthy person and a very active person. My nails turned white, I was short of breath,” he said, adding that it all seemed to happen at once.
He said he went to see a friend who is a family physician. His blood was drawn, and it was discovered that Ginsburg’s hemoglobin, the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs, was extremely low.
“I got myself to North York General, they gave me two transfusions of blood and then they did more testing.”
Doctors discovered that he had a tumour on the lower end of his esophagus where it meets with the stomach – the gastroesophageal junction. Ginsburg was diagnosed with adenocarsinoma.
“Something like less than 1.6 or 2 in a million people get what I get at this age. A cancer like this usually hits people in their 60s and over, and they are generally smokers, drinkers, obese…”
He said that while he sought specialists to join his treatment team, he met some resistance and pessimism.
He said a specialist at Princess Margaret Hospital, “basically wanted to put nails in a wooden box, so to speak.”
But his oncologist at North York General Hospital was eager to start him on an 84-day chemotherapy cycle.
“I was diagnosed right before Rosh Hashanah… On Erev Yom Kippur, I started chemo at North York General.”
He said that same day, his wife, who was nine months pregnant with their second child, had gone into labour at Mount Sinai Hopital.
“I heard Miriam being born over the phone… It was just unbelievable.”
After Ginsburg completed his 84-day cycle, his oncologist decided to extend his chemotherapy to 27 weeks because he was responding so well.
During his second-last CT scan, two of the radiologists who were friends with Ginsburg, said they were shocked by the result.
“In terms of how things looked and how things are now, it is nothing short of miraculous. The metastases, the lymph nodes that were effected have calcified and shrunken down. Our two friends who are radiologists at North York looked at it and said, ‘If we didn’t know where the primary tumour site was, we wouldn’t even know where to begin to look.’”
It’s been six weeks since the treatment ended, and since then, Ginsburg and his wife, who is an engineer, have been doing their own research into therapeutic treatments.
“With my background, I’ve been drawing on the biochemistry and immunology associated with supplements and putting myself on a regiment as well.”
He said he also consulted with the naturopathic college across the street from the hospital to get confirmation that he is doing the right thing.
“On the Jewish side of things, we do our usual – pray three times a day, tfillin, mitzvot, we’ve visited many different rabbis. Gill’s cousin is Rabbi Ya’acov Hillel, who is one of the foremost authorities on Kabbalah in the world, and he does the legitimate, legitimate stuff,” Ginsburg said.
“He said, ‘Just pray, have your faith, keep your emunah and do what you have to do.’”
Ginsburg, who is shomer Shabbat and shomer Mitzvot, said the rabbis he met with instructed him to be even more observant than he already was, light a candle everyday in honour of a late rabbi, and give tzedekah every day in an amount equivalent to the gematriah of his Hebrew name.
“All of these rabbinical discussions happened right before I started doing chemotherapy,” he said.
He recalled being encouraged to change his Hebrew name to Chaim.
He said that Rabbi Hillel had organized two minyanim in his honour in Israel, and just as the rabbi called to inform his wife that his name had been changed to Chaim, Ginsburg was on his way home after having just purchased a complete set of the Talmud.
“People will go a whole lifetime and not get a fraction of these messages,” he said.
Now that he is in remission, his latest battle involves being accepted for a transfer into a Canadian medical school that is close enough to home.
“My followup is here in Toronto, my treatment is here in Toronto. Any other treatment that is going to be done, will be done at [Princess Margaret Hospital].”
Despite being rejected by schools including U of T, where he obtained his master’s degree as a nurse practitioner, he is still waiting to hear from others.
“They say because you went to school outside of Canada, we can’t really account for the weight of your education and what is the comparability to that to your peers,” he said.
“What they’re failing to see is that I’m a nurse practitioner from the school of graduate studies from the faculty of nursing and I was trained by their physicians and even one of the former deans has come to my support… I’m just trying to catch a break, you know?”
He said he was even willing to be accepted on a probationary basis or even go back a year.
Ginsburg has met obstacle after obstacle, yet he refuses to give up on his dream.
“You don’t cave in and lose your faith. That’s what being Jewish is all about. That’s what being human is all about. That is the triumph of the human spirit… I want to be a doctor more than anything.”
Ginsburg, frustrated, said that if it all went as planned, he’d be applying for his residency, rather than fighting to be accepted by a Canadian medical school.
“But there’s a blessing in everything,” his wife said. “Now you get to spend more time with the kids.”
“That I wouldn’t change for anything,” he said.