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Coping During COVID: How Charity, Cancer, and Coincidence Brought These Dentists Together

October 2, 2020
by Michael Carabash, BA, LLB, JD, MBA, CDPM; Dr. Sanjukta Mohanta, BA, DDS


Michael Carabash
Ontario Dental Lawyer, Practice Seller, DMC LLP

“It was a Valentine’s day I’ll never forget,” recalls Michael Carabash. “I was visiting Dr. Ron and Vicky Giedraitis at their practice. The conversation somehow turned to Vicky’s elective double mastectomy. I had nothing to offer to the conversation, so I just listened and asked questions. Ron and Vicky graciously educated me about cancer risks, tests, genes, surgeries and reconstructive options.”

As fate would have it, during that conversation, Michael’s wife (Parastou Carabash, 38 years young) called him. She had felt a strange mass in her left breast during self-examination and went to get it checked by her family doctor. Michael took the call. Parastou was crying: “My doctor told me not to worry. That I was too young to have cancer. No need for even a mammogram. I tried to tell him that my mother had breast cancer. But he wasn’t listening. What do I do?”

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Michael shot up from his chair, looked straight at Ron and Vicky and blurted out: “OH SCREW THAT! You’re getting all the tests done – mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, and MRIs!” A few
weeks later the results came back: breast cancer.

Then COVID-19 hit. Society shut down.And for a brief moment, Michael’s world came crashing down.

Then, on April 1, 2020 – after dealing with bouts of doubt, anger, fear, helplessness and desperation – Michael told the universe about Parastou’s diagnosis.

Well, actually, he told a group of dentists in his Jab Jab WhatsApp Group (a group comprised of GTA and Ottawa dentists who had volunteered with him, or who were planning to, at make-shift dental practices as part of Michael’s annual Caribbean outreach program). And in typical Michael fashion, he half-joked about it: “If anyone knows a good oncologist, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll just cut it off myself.

In a show of love and support, the Jab Jab group of dentists poured out their thoughts, prayers, hopes and personal stories. Some dentists ended up getting checked after Michael’s revelation (keep in mind: one out of every eight women will experience breast cancer). Others disclosed their past cancer stories or, coincidentally, current ones that they hadn’t told anyone until that point.

Suddenly, the group’s superficial joking or complaining about Costco lines and run on toilet paper gave way to something deeper: that we are fragile little things, here for a moment, connected by good times and supportive in bad.

And what follows are stories from some of our Jab Jab dentists. Stories of cancer and coincidence brought together by charity when our worlds were falling apart.

Note: Jab Jab translates to “Devil Devil” and refers to a person dressed up as a devil like character during annual Caribbean Carnival street festivals.

Dr. Sanjukta Mohanta
GP, Brampton

“My dad, Promoda (Mo) Mohanta, died from colon cancer on September 25, 2002,” recalls Jab Jab dentist Dr. Sanjukta Mohanta. “It was a very bad time in my life. Financially, things were difficult. I had just become a dentist a few years earlier. My husband Steve was still in school, so I was supporting both of us. I was also 7 months pregnant with my first. And that’s when I found myself alone with my dad. In the hospital. Watching him take his final breaths.”

Sanj – as her friends call her – is a cheerful busybody who loves being in control in all aspects of her life. And when her dad passed away, she did what she normally does: take control over her body, thoughts and feelings.

“I refused to cry when my dad was dying. I refused to cry after he died. I told myself that I needed to be strong for my unborn child. Two months later, at the same hospital, I gave birth to Ajay (which translates into “Invincible” in Hindi). I didn’t have time to mourn for my dad because I had to work and nurse Ajay. Soon after, I got pregnant with Mya. After she was born, I went back to
work and nursed again. I was always mindful of my overall mood and hormones; I believed that if I were upset, my kids would also be upset. So I kept my emotions in check over the years. Plus I kept myself busy. I never thought about mourning for my dad. And the years went by.”

Fast forward to March 2020. When COVID19 hit, Sanj was forced to stop practicing dentistry and stay home like so many others. She kept herself busy by helping front-line health care workers:
she organized PPE drives to hospitals in Halton and Peel with fellow members of the Halton Peel Dental Association. She also helped the less fortunate by delivering food every 2 weeks through the Wellfort Community Health Centre and the Mississauga Food Bank.

And then one day, over the phone, Jab Jab organizer Michael asked her a quirky question: “Hey Sanj: what would be your funeral song?”. And without much hesitation, she replied: “Memories by Maroon 5!”

The very next day, Sanj finished walking her dog at the park and got into her car. She started driving and turned on a CBC “White Coat, Black Art” podcast. For whatever reason, the topic that came up: “We Need to Talk More About Death”. But Sanj wasn’t having it. “I’m not doing that!”, she told herself. So she switched on the radio instead.

“Memories” by Maroon 5 immediately started to play.

She stopped the car. Remembered her dad.

And cried.

“After all those years, I finally let it all out.”

“Everything led up to that point. I couldn’t fight all the coincidences. No matter how busy I got or how much I tried to control things, I felt that my dad wanted me to hear that song. Reflect on him. And it took COVID-19 to happen for me to finally mourn him. When I refused to hear life’s whispers, I got life’s screams. It’s not what I wanted; it’s what I needed; and the two serendipitously became the same.”

After 18 years, Sanj finally cried for him. “Nothing ever seemed to work out for him”, she recalled. “He came to Canada with my mom in 1969 with no resources or support. All for the promise of a better life. But he never saw it. He faced racism, glass ceilings, and even mental health issues. He wanted me to have kids; so I got pregnant but he died before I gave birth.”

Though he may not have seen it, his sacrifices and energy passed on and opened up endless opportunities for Sanj and her kids in Canada. “I didn’t cry because I mourned his death; I cried because I appreciate his life.”

Dr. Irina Prelovec
GP, Oakville

“My father worked in the pharmaceutical industry in Zagreb, Croatia,” recalls Dr. Irina Prelovec. “He had a friend who worked there too. My father would talk to me about his friend’s daughter, Vesna, from time to time. I didn’t think anything of it until I came to Canada on May 4, 1990. Five days later, my husband (Damir)’s mother passed away in Croatia. While dropping Damir off at the airport, I bumped into a man and his daughter. “What’s your name?” I asked the little girl. “Ida!” she replied. ‘What? How is this possible?’ I thought. Ida is my own daughter’s name and it is NOT a common Croatian name. “And what is your mother’s name?” I asked, almost afraid of the answer. “Vesna!” the little girl replied. I was completely shocked. It was the daughter of my dad’s friend!

Vesna, her husband and daughter had come to Canada some six months earlier. Since that fateful airport meeting, Irina and Vesna’s families became best of friends. The two Idas are born only 40 days apart and have literally grown up together, living 600 metres apart. They’ve travelled together to Florida. They even had the same retirements plans: “We’ll have to learn to play golf!” they joked.

But it wasn’t meant to be. One of the hardest times in Irina’s life started when Vesna went in for a routine colonoscopy. “Don’t worry about it,” Irina reassured her friend. “You’re healthy. Besides, it’s the best thing: you don’t eat for two days and you sleep like a baby!” When Vesna was diagnosed shortly thereafter with inoperable stage 4 colon cancer (which had already spread to her lungs and liver), Irina couldn’t believe it. “This isn’t possible”, Irina recalls. “This is not what stage 4 cancer patients look and act like.” It was only until her best friend started to rapidly lose weight did the grim reality finally set in.

Vesna would tell Irina during their walks: “What can I expect? They have no cure for me anymore. I know that. They’re just giving me something that I took before that didn’t work.” Irina stayed positive: “Don’t say that. We still have retirement together!”

Vesna passed away on December 4, 2017.

It was hard on Irina. But it taught her to enjoy and appreciate life and family. “We are still healthy and we’re still here, and that’s what’s important. The only serious problem you can have is your
health. You can lose your house and find a new home. You cannot lose your health and recover.”

Fast forward… When COVID-19 hit, Irina happened to go shopping with Jab Jab dentist Dr. Margaret Plewik, who told Irina about a funny WhatsApp group that she’s part of: all dentists and one dental lawyer who went down to Grenada to do volunteer work last August. “Hey! I know this guy!” Irina proclaimed. “When I was moving my dental office in May 2017, I asked Michael to come to my office and pick up dental equipment to donate to his outreach program in Jamaica. I bought my office from Dr. George Morris in 1994, who is from Jamaica. Michael took time from his busy schedule and showed up with a van; and with Damir’s help, Michael loaded it up with dental stools, an autoclave, a vacuum, a compressor, etc. It was kind of funny. Not your typical lawyer. So I already had this connection with the group.” After COVID-19 is over, Irina will join Michael and the other Jab Jab dentists to volunteer in the Caribbean.

Dr. Margaret Plewik
GP, Mississauga

“What is the sense of our existence, if not to help others?”, asks Jab Jab dentist Dr. Margaret Plewik.

Margaret’s journey into giving back started eight years ago. Her neighbour was helping to organize a weekend walk to raise money for cancer research, treatment and prevention at the Princess Margaret Hospital. Nowadays, it’s called the One Walk To Conquer Cancer. It was all fun at first: Margaret walked for hours with family and friends and discovered parts of Toronto she’d never known.

But then she heard real stories of cancer patients and health care providers; about how the run she was participating in helped raise much-needed funds to help save lives. Per Margaret: “It brought tears to my eyes. It was real. I could see how we were making a difference. It’s so important. And everybody can do a little bit. Even small donations can make a difference.” Despite having no personal connection with cancer, she promoted the cause year after year.

But it’s wasn’t enough for Margaret. She’s always pushing herself – whether it’s at the gym or at her practice. Since coming from Poland to Canada in 1991, she felt disadvantaged (she wasn’t born or educated here; English is her second language) and has worked extremely hard ever since to better herself and others. “We can always do more to help others,” she says. So three years ago, she started running an annual free dental day at her practice. Her team volunteers their time. Her sundries are donated by supply companies. And Margaret and team spend the day giving back.

Enter Dr. Monika Krolczyk, one of Margaret’s best friends. Monika was heading to Grenada to do free dental work for impoverished locals in August of 2019 with Michael. Margaret saw this as the next step in her charitable endeavours. Here’s how she describes the experience: “It was tough. The clinics were hot. I wasn’t used to the equipment. I didn’t have my mind-reading assistant who’s been with me for 15 years. I couldn’t find things I needed. At one point, I needed a Tofflemire matrix, but we couldn’t find it. So my friend and assistant at the time, Monika, just held the band with her fingers while I applied composite! Not ideal, but it worked.” Margaret smiles and laughs when she remembers that time. “We later found the matrix at Dr. Dagmar Justa’s station.” PS: The running joke is that all the missing sundries magically ended up there. PPS: this isn’t the last you’ll hear of Monika in this article.

Despite the clinical challenges, Margaret really enjoyed the camaraderie of the Jab Jab dentists. Recalls Margaret: “It wasn’t like back home in Canada, where we feel pressure to compete. In Grenada, we were professionals, working as a team and doing our best given the circumstances. We talked about patient cases and treatment plans. We had Michael doing digital x-rays in another room in our Church. And they were good x-rays! Maybe Michael should consider switching careers.”

And when everyone came back home in August 2019, the Jab Jab group continued sharing on the Jab Jab WhatsApp Group or at local meetups. It was kind of like a dental support group where you could socialize and also seek professional input from your peers. “I’m not sure why I didn’t have such a group before, but I think our experience in Grenada brought us all together.”

Then COVID-19 hit. And Michael told the Jab Jab dentists about Parastou’s cancer. It gave Margaret pause for thought. About the need to get checked – especially given that Parastou’s cancer
wasn’t discovered through a mammogram but by the ultrasound that followed (which isn’t routine unless there’s a concern).

Then things really hit home for Margaret when one of her close friends, Maria, passed away from breast cancer in August 2020.

Maria was a professional event and party planner. “She was always so radiant, full of joy, dressed so nicely,” recalls Margaret. “Maria loved her work. You could see it in her decorations, table set ups, the catering. She did a beautiful job. Day and night, she was so happy and always glowing!”

Margaret saw Maria for the last time during an open casket visitation on August 26, 2020. Margaret didn’t know if she had the strength and courage to see her friend lying in a coffin. None of it made sense to Margaret. But when she finally saw Maria, Margaret felt a strange sensation: “Maria was dressed up so nice. She looked lovely as always. Brimming with love and joy. She looked at peace. And a sense of peace suddenly came over me. My reservations disappeared. And then I thought to myself: ‘Why am I wearing black? Maria would have wanted everyone to be happy and dress like we’re going out for a party!’ I felt weird: I didn’t mourn Maria’s passing; I celebrated her life. Because that’s how she would have wanted it. She had two and half more years to enjoy and appreciate the gift of life. And so I will too.”

The very next day, Margaret met up with fellow Jab Jab members at an outdoor patio in Markham to celebrate Dagmar’s “30, Flirty and Thriving / Thirsty” birthday party. “It was so much fun,” says Margaret. “Maria would have liked it”.

Dr. Maria Tuason
GP, Associate After Selling, North York

Fellow Jab Jab dentist Dr. Maria Tuason is no stranger to suffering.

In 1991, at 35 years young, Maria was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She needed a hysterectomy. But she and her husband Jake wanted a third child. In typical dentist fashion, Maria treatment planned herself: “OK – What’s the game plan?” I asked my doctors. They told me about alternatives and risks. I was offered an experimental drug which was used for people who had a hard time getting pregnant. I said, “OK. I’ll do that. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll just have the hysterectomy. I wasn’t worried!” After five months of being on that experimental drug, Maria had a biopsy done to assess whether the drug had worked to shrink her cancer. It came back negative. Then another biopsy. Negative again. Cancer-free! Then she got pregnant with Jaqueline.

The interesting thing about Maria’s experience was her perspective on dying. Ovarian cancer shouldn’t be taken lightly: it affects 1 out of 78 women and kills 1 out of 105. But at that time, Maria
was a busy dentist, working six days a week and seeing her two young daughters (Claire, aged 9, and Victoria, aged 4) on evenings and weekends. She just didn’t have time to think about her mortality. And when she did think about it, she would half-jokingly instruct Jake: “Make sure my girls – not your next wife – get my jewellery! If you do re-marry, I pity them! At my funeral, make sure they do my makeup right; you know how I like it. And I want them to play happy songs at my funeral – like the Beatles!”

Maria pauses. Smiles. And then laughs out loud in typical Maria fashion. “When I die, I want my life to be celebrated! I don’t want anyone to cry.”

All of these memories came flooding back when Michael told the Jab Jab group about Parastou’s breast cancer diagnosis. “Believe me,” Maria said. “I feel your pain. But know this: God has a plan
for you.” And Maria prayed with her daughters for Michael and Parastou. Parastou was declared cancer-free on August 12, 2019.

P.S. Just for giggles, how’s this for a coincidence: when Maria landed at the airport in Grenada on August 8, 2019 to start her dental mission trip with Michael and the rest of the gang, she recognized her previous associate who she hadn’t seen in more than 20 years: Dr. Monika Krolczyk!


About the Authors

Michael CarabashMichael Carabash, BA, LLB, JD, MBA, CDPM, is a founding partner of DMC LLP, Canada’s largest dental-only law firm that helps dentists prepare, market and sell practices in Ontario. Michael leads DMC’s annual Caribbean dental mission trips (Grenada, Jamaica and Turks & Caicos). Michael can be reached at michael@dentistlawyers.ca or 647.680.9530.

 

Dr. Sanjukta Mohanta, BA, DDS, graduated from the U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry in 1999. She volunteers for her local dental society, the Ontario Dental Association and the Canadian Dental Association. She is a general dentist and works at Wellfort Community Health Services’ Health n’ Smiles in Brampton, Ont.


View more articles from the October 2020 issue of Oral Health Office here!


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