Category Archives: National

Weighing a new option


Weighing a new optionAs with so many yo-yo dieters, the weight of a kilogram is constantly in flux—at least at an atomic level. But Ottawa researchers are hoping to get the kilo’s waistline permanently in check by changing how it’s measured.

The kilogram is currently defined by the International Prototype Kilogram, a golf-ball-sized cylindrical weight made out of platinum alloy. Because a kilogram is a physical object, it constantly releases and collects atomic particles, meaning its mass—and the mass of all kilograms—is always changing. ““If [the IPK] moves up or down the others have to follow,” says Barry Wood of the National Research Council in Ottawa. “It’s totally artificial.”

Wood and his team are heading up a movement to measure kilograms against the charge of an electron, a natural constant, using a type of specialized motor called the watt balance. “You can lift mass with a motor,” he says. “If I know how much current I’m putting into the motor, that tells me details about how much I’ve lifted.” Since the NRC purchased the watt balance (pictured below) from the British government two years ago, Wood has been using the room-sized metal machine to determine exactly how much current is needed to lift a kilogram. The data, which has so far cost $2.5 million to collect, is compared to two other watt balances in the U.S. and Switzerland, and used to calibrate the devices to make their results consistent.


Wood estimates this will take about four years, and then the International Bureau of Weights and Measures will redefine the kilogram using the electric standard. It won’t mean much for dieters, but will have a big impact on the scientific community. “This new process will stay the same for the next thousand, million years,” says Wood. “That’s a characteristic we value.”

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The two faces of Col. Russell Williams

Portrait of an accused predator

by Tom Henheffer, Martin Patriquin, and Michael Friscolanti on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 9:35pm

Years before Col. Russell Williams was an accused double murderer, he was a rookie instructor at the Canadian Forces flying school in Portage la Prairie, Man. He was such a standout in the cockpit that his boss, Major Greg McQuaid, selected him for the farewell flight of “Musket Gold,” a now-defunct air force demonstration team that peaked in the 1970s. “I handpicked him because of his skill,” McQuaid told Maclean’s. “I knew he would do a good job. I liked the guy, he was sharp, and he had all the characteristics of a good military officer and a good pilot.”

It was 1992, and the four-man team spent two months training for the big finale, practicing turns and formations in their bright yellow, single-engine TC-134s. Musket Gold’s last hurrah was captured on VHS video, and it was Russ Williams, then a young lieutenant, who edited the footage, added some background music, and gave it to his fellow flyers as a keepsake. When McQuaid first heard about the shocking charges against his old friend—two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of sexual assault—he immediately thought of that old VHS tape. “He showed no indication that he could do something like this—zero, absolutely none,” he says. “He fit in well and got along well with everybody, and was respected by everybody.”
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A cure for the energy crisis

Shale gas could one day replace coal in power plants and gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks

Getty Images/ MetroWest Newspapers

Mike Markham used to hold a match under his faucet and light the tap water on fire. He’d get a small blue flame or an explosive orange fireball, depending on the day. “I had to check to see if I still had a moustache,” he says. Markham lives on an 80-acre farm in Fort Lupton, Colo. There are about eight natural gas wells within a few miles of his property, which he says are causing methane gas to migrate into his water.

The problem, which also affected about 100 of Markham’s neighbours who get water from the same aquifer, ended this year when the drilling companies changed pipe infrastructure and introduced filters and holding tanks to remove the gas before it entered household sinks. The aquifer is still contaminated, but local concerns about water quality aren’t going to stop the nearby drilling. That’s life on the front lines of what might be the biggest energy revolution in generations.

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‘Keep out of my fridge’

An Ottawa man is fighting for the right to slaughter and process meat for his friends

David Gonczol/Ottawa Citizen

Four squad cars squealed into Mark Tijssen’s yard with their lights blazing, just after dark on a cold November night last year. Tijssen, who was having dinner with his nine-year-old son at the time, politely showed the officers around his Ottawa property before being charged with several crimes under the Ontario Food Quality and Safety Act (OFQSA), including killing uninspected animals and distributing meat without a licence. It was all because he had slaughtered a pig and given a friend some of the meat. “I didn’t set out to be an activist or a revolutionary—I grew up on a farm,” says Tijssen, 48, a Canadian Forces major. “There was no need for this.”

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Concordia “floaties” welcomed home

Shipwrecked students survived on rainwater—and Disney songs

Photo by Tom Henheffer

Carrying a fluffy pink blanket and wearing a gigantic smile, Shelley Piller was up long before dawn, waiting on an empty concourse at Toronto’s Pearson airport for her daughter Elysha to return home.

“I’m going to cover her in this blanket and I’m going to take her home, and give her a bath and feed her as much as I can possibly feed her.”

Elysha was one of 48 students on the S.V. Concordia, a sailing ship that doubled as a travelling high school and university. A microburst, a sudden massive gust of wind, toppled the three-masted boat off the coast of Brazil late last Thursday evening. It sank in minutes, leaving every soul on board to fight for survival in leaky life rafts for two days and nights.

“We’re just so happy that they’re all okay. It’s a miracle,” says Piller.

After pulling each other from flooded classrooms and cutting the life rafts free, the students and crew were forced to bail constantly to keep shin-deep water from sinking their small boats. As they fought to collect rainwater and survive on rations, many became sick from dehydration, but they managed to keep their spirits high by singing Disney songs.

“There were low points and high points,” says Mark Sinker, the ship’s history and English teacher. “When there was water in the rafts and people were shivering, morale was very low. But overall I think people kept their spirits up.”

Piller, her husband Tony, and three sons, Lucas, Sam and Trevor, stood waiting, wearing their scarves and winter coats, with sleepy grins and hands in their pockets. A few other families were scattered around the airport, holding coffee and sitting at shops with metal gates still drawn shut.

Brent Tripp waited for his brother Jamie, a world traveller who was working as a crewman on the Concordia. Early Friday morning Brent got a call from his mother—at first all he could make out was the word “sink.” He was always afraid something would happen to Jamie, and thought the worst might have finally happened. Eventually his mother told him everything was okay, and his brother called Sunday morning.

“I pick up the phone and there was a quick delay, then ‘hey brother’ came across” says Tripp, his voice quivering slightly. “Both of us had a huge little breakdown.” He added that although he knew his brother was safe physically, it was worrisome to think what psychological toll the accident might have taken. “The next thing we went into was Olympic men’s hockey. So it was kind of nice to know that my brother, the guy that I love so much, he was still there.”

He said he plans to take it easy once they’re reunited.

“I would just like nothing more then to cram in the back seat of our little four door car and just take him to a little restaurant, buy him some lunch and have a beer.”

As the minutes ticked by the concourse started to become a hub of activity. Alumni from previous voyages arrived, holding bristol board signs declaring “Welcome Home Floaties” and “S.V. Concordia Forever.” Dozens of reporters began rushing back and forth. The families were ushered into a secure area, and a mob of camera’s surrounded the door. Cheering could be heard from inside. Emboldened with the spirit their travelling school was meant to instill, the alumni sat in front of reporters, forcing them to back up about 10 steps so they would have room to greet their friends.

In the end, the parents and children decided not to meet with the media, and went out through side gates. But  Nigel McCarthy, CEO of the Class Afloat program, did eventually address the crowd.

“Today is a day of celebration,” he said. “There’s been lots of tears and there’s been lots of joy. There have been children jumping up into their parents’ arms. It’s a beautiful day.”

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Family, police are puzzled by the disappearance of a Moncton grandmother

Donna O’Reilly was last seen leaving work, heading home to watch the men’s Olympic hockey semi-final

Donna O’Reilly, 54, walked out of the Highfield Square mall in Moncton on Friday, and hasn’t been seen since.

She was reported missing Friday night.

Her husband, Harold, contacted police after he found her empty car in the mall’s parking lot. Her debit or credit cards haven’t been used in the six days she’s been gone, and her family is terrified that she’s been abducted.

“There’s just absolutely no other explanation. There’s absolutely no way my mom would leave on her own accord or do anything to herself.” said O’Reilly’s daughter, Karen Streek. “My mom is a very, very happy woman.”

Streek says her parents, who are just entering retirement, were planning to travel to Florida with family for six weeks starting next Friday. O’Reilly, who Streek calls “super-grandma,” has two young grandchildren, one of which is often swaddled in “grandma’s girl” t-shirts, and both of her daughters are currently expecting.

“At this point in her life she’s ecstatically happy.”

Donna O'Reilly with her two grandkids

O’Reilly was working at the H&R Block kiosk at the Bay on Friday. There was a storm outside and things were slow, so she decided to go home early—she was anxious to watch the men’s Olympic hockey semi-final. At 8 o’clock, she was captured leaving the building by security cameras. No one knows what happened next, because the exterior camera covering her car was malfunctioning.

Harold was at home watching the game. Around 8:30, Streek and her sister, Amy Popovich, made a Skype call from Ottawa. They were phoning to tell their parents to expect another grandchild—Amy was pregnant with her first. Harold said their mom must have gone into her head office after work, and that the girls should call back in the morning. He dozed off and woke up around midnight. He knew something was wrong, so he went to the mall, found the car and phoned the RCMP.

“They knew our family and knew my mom, and knew this wasn’t a typical woman who may have went to a bar and not come home,” says Streek.

Donna O'reilly with her Husband

An investigation was launched immediately, with the RCMP calling in additional staff to man tip lines day and night. So far, no new information has surfaced.

Karen and her sister—and at least two-dozen of O’Reilly’s siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews—have descended on their matriarch’s Moncton home, comforting each other, rolling out sleeping bags, and trying to cope. There are voices in the background and a baby crying as Streek speaks on the phone. She says talking the situation over and staying active is all the family can do.

“It comes in waves,” she says. “Everyone’s completely exhausted because no one can sleep. … We’re all just kind of going around like zombies.”

But, she says, the family is far from giving up.

Donna O'Reilly“We all still have a lot of hope,” she says. “We do really, really strongly believe that she is still here somewhere.”

O’Reilly is five-foot-three, weighs 130 pounds, has green eyes and brown hair that reaches her shoulders. She was last seen carrying a purse and lunch bag, wearing jeans and a brown, medium-length suede-like jacket.

Investigators are asking anyone who has information or was at Highfield Square last Friday between 6 and 9 p.m. to phone the RCMP at (506) 857-2400 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

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Where did you go, Marcus Welby?


(This article originally appeared in Maclean’s Magazine)

You have to be crazy to become a family doctor in Canada. They’re overworked and underpaid, and they’re far too few in number. So how come more and more medical students are shouldering their huge debts and going into family practice residencies—at rates not seen since the early ’90s? “I want to be a family doctor,” says Simon Moore, a fourth-year med student at the University of British Columbia, “because it entirely blew away my expectations.”

Moore originally planned to specialize in emergency medicine. He wanted the thrill and immediacy of saving lives in an ER. “My original impression of family medicine as a specialty was that you work in an office from 9 to 5 and you see warts and rashes and sore throats,” he recalls. But his opinion changed during his third year in med school, which he spent at a practice in Chilliwack, a city of 80,000 in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. He realized that as a single doctor serving a large community of patients, his opportunities went far beyond booster shots and blisters. “You can spend time in the office if you want, but other than that you can catch babies, you can do maternity, you can do emergency medicine, you can do surgical assists—the spectrum is much broader.”

Lately, more medical students are agreeing with Moore: nearly a third now choose family practice, up from less than a quarter just six years ago. That’s still fewer than the 48 per cent who chose family practice residencies before 1994. But the situation is far better than it was earlier in the decade, when lack of student interest in family medicine threatened a full-blown health care crisis.

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In 2001, family practice was the first choice of only 28.2 per cent of grads; by 2003, that number had dropped to 24.9 per cent. “The shine had definitely worn off family medicine,” says Dr. Tom Freeman, chair of the department of family medicine at the University of Western Ontario’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, where in 2004 only 25 per cent of students chose to become GPs. Long hours and difficult work made family practice unattractive, Freeman says, and “the remuneration issue was a major problem in most provinces.”

Medical students often graduate with massive debt, sometimes exceeding $100,000. According to a study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, GPs made an average of $202,481 in 2004 and 2005 (the latest years for which data are available); medical specialists earned $248,694 and surgical specialists made $334,012. The problem wasn’t just low pay, but the method of payment. In most provinces, doctors are paid primarily through a fee-for-service system. Under this model, MDs are paid for each service—such as office visits or tests—they provide. Because it rewards physicians for the number of patients they see in-office, fee-for-service can discourage after-hours and clinical work, as well as preventative medicine. That encourages a narrowing of the family practice area, which cuts out much of the variety that attracts med students to family practice in the first place.

For years now, doctors have been calling for change, and most provinces have been slow to respond. But Ontario, for one, has revamped its payment scheme. “Those who are doing the comprehensive scope of practice, doing more than just sitting in their office all day by getting out and attending to the needs of their patient wherever they find them—those people are getting rewarded now,” says Freeman.

He says that thanks to those changes, as well as better incentive and support programs for family doctors, the number of students going into family practice at Schulich has increased from 25 to 40 per cent over the past five years. That turnaround has been echoed nationally—32.5 per cent of med students listed family medicine as their first pick for residence training in 2009.

Yet there is still a severe shortage of doctors, especially in rural Canada, and it goes beyond the ratio of medical students choosing family practice. In 2006, a mere nine per cent of Canada’s family doctors worked in rural areas—home to 21 per cent of the population. The worst shortage is in Nunavut. According to a 2007 study, only 29 doctors per 100,000 people practise in the territory. That’s less than half the ratio in South Africa, which has one of the world’s worst doctor shortages.

“The job is a whole lot harder” outside the cities, says Dr. Gerry O’Hanley, an ophthalmologist and former family doctor who’s been practising in Prince Edward Island for more than 30 years. “Some of them may work 50, 60, 70 hours a week, and some more.” With such low numbers, it’s hard for rural doctors to find colleagues to share schedules, meaning they’re forced to work almost constantly. And with specialists and specialized diagnostic equipment rarely available, they have to worry that their patients won’t receive adequate or timely care. “They often don’t have the physical plant to work with,” says O’Hanley. “They don’t have the diagnostic aids. They don’t have the medical and allied health personnel around them that would be arrayed for a family practitioner who’s in a more urban practice.” He illustrates the difficulty of rural practice with the example of a hospital in the small town of O’Leary, P.E.I. It doesn’t have a single specialist on staff, and is run by only four general practitioners. “It’s 24-7 to run a hospital,” O’Hanley says. “It’s very hard to maintain over the long term.”
Medical school enrolment

Governments and universities are striving to ensure doctors wind up where they’re most needed. The University of British Columbia has opened a satellite campus in Prince George, 775 km north of Vancouver, that trains students in rural medicine and tries to entice them into entering residence in the area. Lakehead and Laurentian universities jointly opened the Northern Ontario School of Medicine in Thunder Bay in 2005, and UWO has a program that requires students to spend at least one week at a rural practice. Med schools have also started giving priority to applicants from outside of cities—students who are more likely to return to the countryside.

Meanwhile, the government of Manitoba is investing money to provide bonuses to doctors working outside cities, and Alberta has established a rural physician action plan. The government of Ontario has created a model for physician group practice, called Family Health Groups, which pair a minimum of three doctors with nurses, nurse practitioners, social workers and dietitians to share workloads and provide better overall care.

But despite all the work, and the increasing interest in family practice among students, O’Hanley thinks the challenges will only get more severe, at least in the short term. He says too many doctors are due for retirement, and that their replacements are cut from a very different stock. “We don’t produce docs who’ll work 80 to 100 hours, and that’s probably a good thing, but it affects patient care,” he says. “Some old-time GPs are getting replaced by three or four people.”

Moore, 25, is part of that new breed. His experience in Chilliwack taught him about the challenges of family practice and the problems inherent with working in the countryside, but he doesn’t plan on working many 80-hour weeks. “You can set your own hours and the scope of your own practice, which is really attractive,” he says. “Family medicine is what you make it.” Moore points to the example of a friend who spends half his time working as a doctor, and the other half running a water-rafting business.
Practices like that are good for individual MDs, as O’Hanley says, but they mean the system needs more doctors to replace the ones who seemingly never took a break. And the situation is made even worse because of bad planning in the ’90s, when provincial governments acted on recommendations from the 1991 Barer-Stoddart report, which urged them to save money by graduating fewer doctors and relying more on other health care workers, such as nurses and dietitians. Governments listened, and cut funding to med schools to reduce seats. That only served to prolong and increase the severity of the MD shortage.

“The medical schools across Canada are in fact ramping up their enrolments,” says Dr. Anne Doig, president of the Canadian Medical Association. “But it’s a slow process.” She says the solution is complex. Schools have to increase recruitment; governments must increase funding, revise payment schemes, and pay more attention to ensuring an even distribution of doctors. And they must provide more incentives and better support for doctors going into rural medicine. “The long-term picture is, we’ll get there,” Doig says. “It’s not going to be a two- to five-year solution. It may be a 10- to 15-year solution.”

Moore agrees. “It is in a crisis,” he says. “But it is getting better.”

Medical school: what do you need to get in?

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