Many doctors dream of having an impact beyond their immediate practice or community. Dr. Arnold Noyek lived that dream.
Noyek was a global healer, and in the process, he became a peacebuilder. The renowned Toronto ear, nose and throat specialist was famous for promoting mandatory hearing tests for newborns here at home and for establishing a charity that used the international language of medicine to further peace in the Middle East. Noyek died in Toronto on Dec. 14. He was 81 and had been suffering from multiple myeloma for several years.
He had a large medical footprint in Toronto – at Mount Sinai Hospital and Baycrest Health Sciences, as well as teaching at the University of Toronto – but was perhaps best known for founding the Canada International Scientific Exchange Program (CISEPO), an international network of academics, researchers, educators, students and other professionals working to improve health in 44 countries.
Since its founding in 1984, CISEPO’s main focus has been to bring together Canadian, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian doctors, scientists, nurses, medical students and other health-care professionals “in pursuit of building networks of peaceful professional co-operation across the Arab and Israeli frontier,” reads a U of T biography of Noyek.
More specifically, Noyek and CISEPO spearheaded the diagnosis and treatment of congenital hereditary deafness in the Middle East, incorporating Ontario’s model of newborn hearing screening that he helped develop. His work on hearing issues in infants and children in the region led to the first joint Arab-Israeli professional association, the Middle East Association for Managing Hearing Loss (MEHA).
The effort took root a year after Jordan and Israel signed their peace treaty in 1994, when the late King Hussein invited Noyek to use health care as a way to build relations between Israelis and Arabs. A number of Palestinian academics and institutions joined the effort in 1997.
Noyek was well-positioned for the task as otolaryngologist-in-chief at Mount Sinai Hospital, a position he held from 1989 to 2002. He joined the hospital in 1966.
He began organizing conferences on the early detection of hearing loss across the Middle East, in Amman, Gaza, Nablus, as well as Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Through a series of conferences sponsored by CISEPO and the University of Toronto, he discovered high rates of genetic neural hearing loss in the region, due to the high number of blood relations marrying within extended families.
“The biggest-kept secret is the factor of genetics,” Noyek told The CJN in 2012. “We discovered that hearing loss due to genetic problems was six to 10 times more prevalent in the Middle East than any other place on the globe, and this was a direct result of intermarriage.”
CISEPO’s goal was to educate local doctors and health professionals on how to properly diagnose and manage hearing loss in newborns, infants and children.
Arnold Melvyn Noyek was born in Dublin on Oct. 9, 1937, the only son of Bernie, a salesman, and Frieda. The family immigrated to Canada in 1940, just before the Second World War.
“I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was in grade school,” Noyek once said. “I liked the idea of helping people.” He fulfilled that ambition when he graduated from U of T’s medical school, then trained in otolaryngology at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital in New York.
In the 1970s, doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital began identifying deaf babies 48 hours after delivery. The work continued when Noyek became chief of otolaryngology.
Screening for deafness and hearing issues in newborns had not been mandatory, but in 2001, the method developed by Noyek’s department was adopted as health policy in Ontario. A few years later, the province enacted the Ontario Infant Hearing Program and by 2011, had screened its one-millionth newborn. The method has since been exported to other provinces and countries.
With funding from Ottawa, CISEPO helped implement a universal newborn hearing screening program in Jordan in 2007. Israel adopted the method as part of its national health policy in 2010.
Under Noyek’s leadership, the method aims to find and treat deaf babies around the world “through sophisticated auditory rehabilitation, new hearing aid technologies and cochlear implant surgery,” according to U of T’s biography.
“He was a tremendous humanitarian,” recalled Noyek’s longtime friend and CISEPO board member Wendy Switzer Myles. “If you called him at 4 a.m. with an emergency, he’d tell you to come in at 7. He was famous for going out to the waiting room to tell patients, ‘I’m sorry for the delay. Don’t worry. You’ll get full attention.’ He really did care. He was universally loved.”
He was a mentor, particularly to up-and-coming doctors, related Switzer Myles. For each of the past 15 summers, he brought nine senior medical students – three each from Israel, Jordan and Gaza – to work with three Canadian students in the emergency departments of several Toronto hospitals. The program was called the International Pediatric Emergency Medicine Elective.
The students were divided into three teams, and with a member from each country on each team, they had no choice but to work together.
Noyek’s work won many plaudits. In 2004, he and CISEPO received the Canadian Red Cross Power of Humanity Award, presented by Jordan’s Queen Noor. He was also the recipient of the Canadian Society for International Health 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award and of the prestigious Ludwik and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Prize in 2009. He was named to the Order of Canada in 2013.
He was a tremendous humanitarian.
– Wendy Switzer Myles
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a faculty member of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, where Noyek was a professor and advisor on global health, recalled “a great man (who) did his part to promote humanity and used medicine as an engine for the journey to peace, and to carry the human message to bring people together, without any politicization.”
Abuelaish, the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli hospital and a proponent of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, said Noyek would “humanize, not politicize. Whenever we needed him, he used to come to give lectures and speak – to send the message of humanity. And that’s medicine.”
Dr. Shawna Novak, the executive director of CISEPO and Noyek’s protégée, said his work in hearing loss in young children was part of a larger vision of interfaith relationship building, strengthening Israeli civil society and “using public health and health care to generate the foundations of peace in the Middle East. These grassroots projects on the ground are ways to use medicine and health care to build this trust. You have to co-operate across borders. Through medicine, you end up building social capital, which contributes to peace building.”
Noyek “was so passionate about it. He was a pioneer in this area,” Novak said.
“In our troubled neighbourhood, such projects function as confidence-building measures, helping to bridge cultural differences and ease suspicion and fear,” Galit Baram, Israel’s consul-general in Toronto and Western Canada said in a statement. “Dr. Noyek did not dread this Herculean task and was dedicated to bringing people together and promoting mutual understanding, compassion and hope. Our world needs more people like him. He will be sorely missed.”
Noyek stressed that while CISEPO is not a political organization, peacebuilding has been an inevitable by-product.
“Our aim is to spread the best medicine possible to as many people in the Middle East as possible in an inclusive, diverse and non-partisan way,” he said in 2005. “We don’t claim to be able to make peace, but if we can build some bridges along the way, even better.”
Noyek is survived by his wife of 60 years, Judy, children Alan, Steven, Naomi, Jonathan and Joey, and 14 grandchildren.