GYSLER email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-04-30 published
Doctor gave the 'gift of life'
'Test-tube' baby expert helped introduce In Vitro Fertilization program at the University of Toronto
By Carol COOPER Special to The Globe and Mail Wednesday, April 30, 2003 - Page R9
Nine months ago, a long-time patient of Dr. Alan SHEWCHUK offered the reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist a choice of pictures depicting her daughter to add to his collage of kids' photos from grateful parents. Upon choosing one, he flipped it over and read an inscription: "Thank you for the gift of life."
Dr. SHEWCHUK had unknowingly made an apt choice, one that spoke of the joy his work brought to his patients and their families.
"It was wonderful to have the experience [of having a child]. It was truly a great gift of life, "said the woman, who conceived under Dr. SHEWCHUK's care. Her reaction was typical of those he treated and it drove him: "They [his patients] were just so happy and that was the kick that he got out of it, "said Valerie SHEWCHUK, his wife of 42 years.
Dr. SHEWCHUK, who throughout his career directed the Toronto General Hospital's reproductive biology unit, helped start the University of Toronto's In Vitro Fertilization program, ran a private practice, taught medical school and co-founded a private infertility clinic -- with many activities overlapping -- died of cancer on March 29 at the age of 66.
Known as "Big Al" to many colleagues for his tongue-in-cheek persona of the grand old man of infertility treatment, the good-looking doctor worked briefly as a model and worked evenings at a variety store to pay his way through medical school.
After completing his training, Dr. SHEWCHUK practised family medicine in Toronto's Little Italy. There, in order to communicate with his patients, he learned Italian, adding to the French, German and Ukrainian he already knew. Three years later, he left to study obstetrics and gynecology, completing his residency in 1969. That year he became an associate staff member of Toronto General Hospital and a clinical research fellow in what was later named its reproductive biology unit.
Appointed a staff member at the hospital in 1972, Dr. SHEWCHUK attended more than 3,000 births during his career.
"He just loved delivering babies, "said his daughter Melanie, who worked with her father for 25 years. "He said, when you pulled out a baby, the baby was the most perfect thing in the world. And you hand it to the parents and the parents are just elated."
witnessing the joy of birth motivated Dr. SHEWCHUK to help those who suffered the sorrow of infertility.
"As each decade brought new things to the field of infertility, he kept up and tried to enhance people's fertility in the best way he could with the tools he had at the time, "said Nancy BRYCELAND, the nurse manager who worked with Dr. SHEWCHUK in the reproductive biology unit he headed from 1974 to 1988. One of those tools was in vitro fertilization. Dr. SHEWCHUK travelled with colleagues to Melbourne, Australia, late in 1983 to study the technique and in January, 1984, was among those who began the University of Toronto in vitro fertilization program located at Toronto General.
On June 21 of that year, Dr. SHEWCHUK told the Ontario Medical Association that a Toronto woman participating in the in vitro fertilization program was four-months pregnant, The Globe and Mail reported. In November, 1984, the program's first baby was born.
Dr. SHEWCHUK was born in Toronto on October 18, 1936, the middle of three sons of a schoolteacher of Ukrainian descent and a Ukrainian father who immigrated to Canada during the First World War. Interned in northern Ontario for two years because of his Austro-Hungarian citizenship, Dr. SHEWCHUK's father later worked as a house painter and carpenter.
Dr. SHEWCHUK was a gifted athlete who played quarterback in high-school football and turned down the chance to pursue professional baseball. Instead, he attended the University of Toronto medical school.
As an assistant professor with the school from 1976 to 1983, following time as a clinical instructor and lecturer, Dr. SHEWCHUK demanded a lot of his students, including standards of professional dress. The doctor, who himself wore a lab coat, required they wear a shirt and tie in the presence of patients and sent them home to change if they appeared otherwise.
"He was a great motivator, "said Dr. Matt GYSLER, a former student of Dr. SHEWCHUK's and now chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ontario "He made this area [reproductive medicine] sound interesting."
Appreciative patients brought babies and gifts of baking to his office.
"Dr. SHEWCHUK was like a father figure to his patients, "said Dr. Murray KROACH, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at the Toronto East General Hospital. "He had a presence that gave confidence and he was motivated very strongly to expand this area of reproductive biology."
Said one patient: "He was larger than life and had a magical quality." She remembers how Dr. SHEWCHUK told her that he had slept poorly the night before her ultrasound, worrying about the success of her pregnancy. "He balanced hope with reality," another said.
With a heavy workload, Dr. SHEWCHUK reluctantly stopped delivering babies in the late 1980s. In 1992, along with three others, Dr. SHEWCHUK established START, a private infertility clinic.
"Dr. SHEWCHUK was a great idea man, "said Dr. Carl LASKIN, one of the clinic's co-founders. "He was a real character who would never just accept that it was just by the book. The obvious was never the way he liked to think."
During clinical meetings when colleagues presented sound physiological reasons for a patient's problems, Dr. SHEWCHUK would often counter with an "off-the-wall" explanation. "Many times he would be absolutely wrong, "Dr. LASKIN said, "but he pushed everyone to think differently."
Two and a half months before his death, Dr. SHEWCHUK wrote a letter to a married couple who had seen him. In it, he encouraged them not to give up hope and reminded them that they could adopt. They would make wonderful parents. And he said that people like them were the reason he came to work. They had given him joy, said the man who himself brought joy to so many.
Dr. SHEWCHUK leaves his wife Valerie and children Melanie, Leslie and Alan.
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