Monthly Archives: March 2012

Muni 071 Website (2)

I Am More Than My Hair….

On Sunday,  I sensed, rather than felt, my hair separate from my scalp.  I was in bed and stayed very still hoping that if I didn’t move, my hair would stay intact.   I woke up gingerly and took the courage to look at myself in the mirror.  Relief!  Hair was on top of head.  Everything was fine with the world!   And then I took a shower and observed  in painful shock as hair disbanded from my head and collected by my feet.  Not a good feeling.  I realized the time had come for extreme measures.    So who did I call?  Not Ghostbusters. But my hairstylist, Afsan, who I adore.  We set up time to shave my hair at my home on Tuesday night at 8pm. This had to be planned so that my Investment Banker son, Shayne, could be home for this event, at his request. The actual shave happened quite seamlessly. My family cheered on and offered encouraging words.  My mom cried.  I refused to look in the mirror. Afsan was compassionate, professional and sensitive.  As soon as she left, I wore a colorful scarf to hide my shaved head.  That made me feel safe.  That was my plan – to scarf my way until my hair grew back. We celebrated by having cheesecake and coffee.

Shaving your head is one thing.  Accepting  how you look with a shaved head is an entirely different matter. The first thing I experienced is that my head got quite cold when I went to bed and I had to wear a toque to sleep.  I felt like the candlestick maker from nursery rhymes of the past who wore those pointy hats to bed.

I woke up this morning, went to the bathroom  and saw myself in the mirror.  I screamed at the top of my lungs because I did not recognize myself.  If it were not so funny, it would be sad!  Somehow I have to align the vision I see in the mirror with what I see reflected.  This is easier said than done.  Tomorrow I plan to stand in front of the mirror for as long as it takes and have an honest chat with the reflection I see.  I am going to say, “I am you, and you are me” so let’s deal with it”.   I am going to find a way to be comfortable with this new look and embrace it.  Besides I don’t  want to be scaring myself every morning!  Today I pay tribute to my incredible husband.  Every time I hid behind the scarf, he  gently removed it and told me I was beautiful bald.  He did it so often today that I am starting to believe.   Yet another part of the journey, another learning, another blessing.

– Munira

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Memories

Last night, my Mum snuck into my bed at midnight to wish me happy birthday.  Yesterday, I turned 24 years old.  As she held me in her arms, she told me how she was proud of the person I had become.  It was only a few years ago that we lay curled up beside each other in that very bed, talking about first kisses and bad dates.  About goals and aspirations.  About upcoming tests and interesting things I had learned in school that day.  About which University I should go to.  10 years of stories, laughs, tears and lessons have been shared in this bed.

We thought of the memories we will create together over the next 10 years.  I imagine my Mum being there to drop me to the airport when I return to East Africa – she is a strong woman, but cries every time she hugs me at the security gate. Every time.  I imagine calling my Mum from abroad telling her about all the inspiring mamas I met in the field that day, and to help me process the inequities and challenges of working in the development sector.  I can imagine us figuring out which school I should go to for my Masters degree, over a plate of nachos and chicken wings – and be there to decorate the Christmas tree together when I return home for the holidays each year.  Ever since I was a little girl, my Mum has told me that the biggest decision I will ever make is deciding who I want to marry.  On my wedding day, I imagine her being present every step of the way.  To make sure I made the right decision.  To dance with my Dad at the reception.  To continue to show me how love grows stronger even after 30 years of marriage.  I imagine my Mum holding my hand in the delivery room as I become a mother – and introducing her grandchildren to the enchanting words of Roald Dahl and the magic of Harry Potter.

We are a family of immense faith and positivity, but we are also a family of honest communication.  As we visualized the memories we’ll create over the next ten years, we talked about our fears.   For an instantaneous moment, the thought crossed our minds that maybe my Mum would not be here for convocations, Christmases and carriages.  She is battling advanced stages of two types of blood cancer, and there are a number of things that must align perfectly for her to get through this.  Stable blood levels.  No more antibodies, in the case of a transfusion. Chemotherapy for the lymphoma.  Chemotherapy for the multiple myeloma.  Stem cell transplant.  And hopefully, sometime soon, a cure for myeloma so she can live well beyond the 5-6 years typical of people with this type of cancer.

And then we realized, the beauty of life lays in its unpredictability and constant change.  I don’t know what the next ten years has in store for my Mum, or for any of us.  But what I do know, is that when my Mum and I get lost as we generally do, we always seem to stumble across a Fairweathers outlet store.  And when a new Twilight movie comes out, we are at the front of the line on opening day.  And when the Canadian National Exhibition opens each year, we are the happiest people in the world.  These are what memories are made of.  It’s not necessarily the amount of time you have with someone that matters; it’s about what you make of that time.  It’s about being present in every conversation, in every moment.  That’s what really counts.

– Sabrina

Endings and Beginnings

Whenever I am asked about my job, I beam!  I simply have the best job in the world.

For the past year and a half, I have worked as a consultant with Sanofi, one of the world’s leading healthcare and vaccine companies, dedicated to saving lives.  My role is Head of of Organizational Development for Canada and the scope of my work includes change, culture, performance, leadership and talent.

I wake up every morning jumping out of bed to rush into work.  Every day at work is an opportunity for me to make a difference.  At the end of each day, I evaluate what I have accomplished.  If I’m not happy with what I achieved, I re-double my efforts the next day.  What is it about Sanofi that enables me to do my best work?  For me, it starts with leadership.  My boss. Julia O’Rawe, is one of the best HR practitioners I have worked with.  Her standards are exceptionally high.  She does not suffer fools gladly. There is  always time and opportunity to creatively debate and constructively discuss issues to ensure the right interventions.  And she is fun, with a killer sense of humour!

I have the privilege of presenting  OD initiatives to the Canadian Management Committee monthly, knowing that the President of Sanofi Pasteur, Mark Lievonen, will  be there to support me in his quest  to creating an engaged culture where employees can do their best work.  Hugh O’Neil, the CEO and President of Sanofi Aventis Canada, is a leader I aspire to be like.  I have best friends at work – – people to talk to, challenge, coach, have lunch with, laugh with, learn from, share pictures with.  It is an environment of professionalism, competence and people having your back.   This is my last week at work as I complete my contract with Sanofi and focus on taking care of myself.

Leaving work has been one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do so far.  But holding on to work when you are not able to deliver to your best level is not an option for me.  What I have learned is that it is possible to find work with joy and meaning. And while I won’t be in the work environment for the rest of the year, I am going to turn my attention to other pursuits. Starting with learning how to make Thai food!

– Munira

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When I grow up, I want to be my Mommy.

Yesterday was Navroz – the mark of a new year and the first day of spring.  As is customary in the Premji household, new beginnings are opportunities to set resolutions.  Gym memberships and eating plans seem trivial.  And learning to cook more than a peanut butter sandwich just doesn’t seem to be a priority anymore.  This year, what I really want is to be like my Mum.

Over the last 3 weeks, I have watched my Mum grapple with the toughest news she has ever had to receive.  I have overheard her discussions with friends describing the day she was diagnosed (D-day) and our scare at the Intensive Care Unit –no pretension, no victim-attitude; simply real and honest conversations.  I admire her authenticity – her ability to feel the good and the bad intensely, and embrace the vulnerability of the situation in her own stride.

With each curve ball my Mum has been thrown – a second cancer diagnosis, blood transfusions, acute hemolytic anemia – she has stepped up to the plate confidently and hit it out of the park.  Never have I seen a person approach uncertainty with as much positivity and resilience as she has.  She is fighting these cancers, with every ounce of energy humanly possible to muster up.  And through this, she is showing me the gift of being alive.  Her will to fight is a testament to how life is much too precious to throw in the towel.  Every day, every moment is one worth living to the absolute fullest.  My Mum is a walking example of that.   Her finely manicured toenails, impeccably clean Toyota Rav4 and brand new hardwood floors are proof enough that cancer does not have to stop life; it merely is a speed-bump that makes you slow down for a bit and take a moment to admire what’s around you, before speeding off again full-force on your way.

It has been a joy to be home and spend time watching my Mum, learning from her, trying to emulate her ways.  I selfishly crave our alone-time whether they be on our drives to the hospital, or waiting for test results, or sharing a killer milkshake at Pickel Barrel.  These precious mother-daughter moments are opportunities for my Mum to share her thoughts about this process with me.  She speaks about the importance of appreciating the little things in life – nurses who can find her vein right away, blood draws that don’t hurt, waking up in the morning with an appetite.   She has made me promise to enjoy every bite of food – something she has struggled with since starting chemo.  If there is anything I have learned from my Mum through this process, it is that the little things matter.  Take time to celebrate the small stuff, because it’s the small stuff that makes this ride much more worthwhile.

When faced with two late stage cancers, it would be easy to sit in the corner like little Jack Horner and ask the question ‘why me?’.  But instead by asking the more empowering question of ‘where is the learning in this?’, my Mum has taught me the value of perspective.  You can make virtually any situation a positive one simply by changing your paradigm.

My Mum may have cancer, but when she walks into the hospital, she looks like a supermodel.  Business suit, heeled boots, funky jewelry – that is the new look of a woman with cancer (and a soon-to-be cancer survivor).  My Mum went so far as calling my Dad and me bums after wearing jeans to her last appointment – and trust me, we have dressed to the nines ever since! She has taught me that no matter what experience comes your way, good or bad, you tackle it head on with confidence, with flair and with style.  That’s my Mum.  A stylish, radiant woman with an extraordinary spirit and an unbelievable zest for life.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be with her by her side throughout this time. It truly is a gift to be able to call her my Mommy.

– Sabrina

Munira Premji_Chemo Day 1

Chemotherapy: A carefully concocted cocktail of drugs

Monday, March 12, 2012 – Toronto.

Woke up this morning with a sense of cautious optimism. Today is chemo day.

Spent the next few minutes in bed with Nagib offering prayers to the four blood donors that have kept me alive.  Asked God to help us make it through today with courage and resilience and for the chemo to work.

Until last week, I naively thought chemo was all the same. In fact, each chemo treatment is a carefully concocted cocktail of drugs designed specifically for your type of cancer.  I observed some patients come in for 30 minutes of chemo, some receive a pill, some injections.  My chemo for lymphoma is called R-CHOP.  It requires me to go to the hospital every 3 weeks for a full day.  I am hooked on an IV machine for most of the day as one drug, then another, enters my body.  Every 20 minutes, a nurse comes to check my temperature and blood pressure.  I welcome the chemo and visualize it attacking the cancer in a battle inside me.

The start of the chemo experience is an interesting one. You check in to “Chemo Day Care” at the appointed time, and the receptionist gives you a buzzer.  If you’ve been to The Keg Steakhouse during rush hour, you know what I mean.  Then you wait (good thing I brought my iPad).  When your “table” is ready, the buzzer vibrates and chimes and the receptionist sends you to one of the colourful pods and a designated seat (Purple Pod, Chair # 12 in my case).   Volunteers come over to offer juices, lend a helping hand and stay to chat if you want.

In a surreal way, sitting for chemo is a relaxing affair. You sit in a comfortable leather chair, talk to family, have lunch.  I shared a pastrami sandwich and large salad with Nagib. It was like a date!

Chemo affects each person differently.  The common side effects are fatigue, mouth sores and nausea.  I have tolerated chemo remarkably well so far.  The only negative has been having a bitter metallic taste in my mouth so I am not enjoying most foods, except sweets.  So I am consuming ice cream and fruits and French toast and milkshakes to keep the calories high and my weight up.  Today, my taste buds have changed completely and I can’t handle any sweets.  This will be an interesting time of trial and error with food.

As the chemo drugs lower my immune system’s ability to fight off infections, viruses and other bugs, I’ve been advised to stay away from large gatherings of people :-(.  Next chemo April 2.

A SNAPSHOT OF CHEMO

Lunch from Druxy’s:  $12
Price of parking for the day at PMH: $20
Cost of chemo drugs: $000’s (thank you OHIP)
Surrounded by family while undergoing chemo (even though they were somewhat distracted):  PRICELESS !

Rodger Tiedemann

My Superheroes

Though they may not wear tights and a cape, nor have their initials plastered to their chest, there are four extraordinary superheroes who have come into my life.

Dr. Almas Adatia. Superpower: Persistence.

  • In December, I noticed I was tired and needed more sleep than usual.  I went to my Family Doctor, Dr. Adatia, who suggested I have my blood levels checked.  That was the very first time my hemoglobin level had plummeted to 70.  She took this very seriously and had me go to Emergency immediately for a blood transfusion.  With new blood in me, I felt alive again, but Dr. Adatia insisted on weekly blood tests which showed a continual decline.  If it were not for her persistence and follow-through, I would have likely continued living like this indefinitely without any resolution to the cause of the blood loss.

Dr. Jean Wang.  Hematologist, Princess Margaret Hospital. Superpower: The Connector.

  • I met Dr. Wang, my first hematologist, at the Emergency department at Toronto General Hospital.  I didn’t even know what a hematologist was!  I appreciated her thoroughness and how seriously she took her job.  Her focus was to get me to the right oncologist and get a treatment plan in place.  She knew that time was of the essence, and she ensured I was connected to the right oncologist.

Dr. Rodger Tiedemann.  Oncologist.  Princess Margaret Hospital.  Superpower: Superman.  

  • Dr. Tiedemann belongs in the extraordinary leagues of gentlemen.  A big New Zealander, he graces the hospital with professionalism, good looks, competence and an accent that makes even the worst news about cancer, seem like poetry.  Dr. Tiedemann’s expertise in both Lymphoma and Multiple Myeloma is a perfect fit for my complex case — it’s like he was made for me!  I really appreciate how he partners with us as he designs a treatment plan.
Dr. Christine Cserti-Gazdewich.  Transfusion Medicine Specialist/Clinical Hematologist.  Toronto General Hospital.  Superpower: Going above and beyond.  
  • Dr. Cserti is the kind of person everyone wants to have on their team.  She goes above and beyond the call of duty and places patient welfare at the heart of her work.  Last Thursday, when I was rushed to Emergency with a hemoglobin of 42 that was dropping every hour, she and her team worked tirelessly behind the scenes to find the right blood match.  A daunting task. Quite simply, without her, the game would be over before it even began.

We all have superheroes in our lives.  People who did little and big things to make our world a better place.  Who are your superheroes and how will you recognize them today?

– Munira

Munira and the Magical Hat

The Magical Hat

There are two types of people in this world – one who can wear hats, and the other who can’t.  Unfortunately, my Mum fits into the latter.  For years, we have tried to find a hat that likes her –from baseball caps at Jays games, to visors on beach vacations, to Santa hats at Christmas parties, to beanies, to berets, to bowlers. If it’s been invented, we’ve tried it – and trust me, we’ve tried them all.  On Monday, while sitting in the chemotherapy daycare unit of Princess Margaret Hospital, a hat found its way to Mum.  Not just any hat – the hat.  A bright pink and white, hand-made toque that was a perfect fit atop her head.  Like Cinderella’s glass slipper.  Mum had found a hat that agreed with her, and the hat had found a new home.

But this particular hat was more than just a hat; it was an act of kindness.  It was made by a past cancer survivor who wanted to ‘pay forward’ the generosity given to her during her experience with cancer.  It is unfortunate that too often we pay our pockets, without paying it forward.  In today’s society, kindness has taken a backseat to unsubstantiated greed; generosity has been demoted to something we can do, rather than something we should do; and the giving of time to a worthy cause is a calculated act that must be booked in our calendars weeks in advance.  Never have I been more attuned to our values as a society and how they seem to stray year after year from our core human instincts.  And then a hat comes our way – and flowers, phone calls, emails and chocolates – from both strangers and friends alike, demonstrating the power of a simple act of kindness in driving my Mum towards a place of positivity and promise.  A place where she feels she has an army of support behind her to get her through this journey.  A place where she feels she has something worth fighting for – and more and more, that reason seems to be to give back and ‘pay forward’ all the support that she has received during this time.

The hat has been a reminder of the fragility of life – the idea that we can be at the peak of our careers one day, and the next, be bed-ridden in the Intensive Care Unit.  It is a reminder that life is too short, moments are too precious to be living a life we do not particularly want to live.  Engaging in habits we don’t want to be involved in.  Doing things we are not absolutely passionate about.  But most of all, the hat has been a symbol of hope – a silent gift from a complete stranger telling us that everything will be okay.  If the hat-maker could survive cancer, my Mum can too.  And when going through an experience like this, you hang onto every ounce of hope you can get.  Every stable hemoglobin level, every normal temperature, every bit of energy is something to be hopeful about.

The hat will become an essential accessory item when my Mum begins to lose her hair in the coming weeks.  But the little fellow has played an even greater role already  – to remind us to live each day in gratitude, to be kind to others, to embrace the fragility of life and to remain hopeful.  A magical hat, indeed.

– Sabrina