Guest Column: How letters from fellow students helped my grandfather

By Jesse Wolfsohn

Editor’s note: Jesse Wolfsohn of Ottawa is a student at the Medical School for International Health (MSIH) at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

As I enter the last days of the academic year, I reflect on my excellent experiences at MSIH. Due to the COVID-19 situation, I left Israel two months ago. It was an exciting adventure to return to Canada with my roommate. Remote education is top-quality. Most of all, I am filled with joy to be with my family. However, in this article, I would like to focus elsewhere.

Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, I have paid attention to a variety of TV specials, messages from celebrities and official messages from politicians. The consensus regarding easing the burden of loneliness is to keep constant communication with friends and family. This is maintained through social media, phoning, video calls and the explosive gain in popularity of Zoom. We are able to feel connected to others despite being physically apart. Coping with social distancing is viewed as easily doable. However, as younger people, we often take these modes of communication for granted. The elderly have been neglected in this situation. We have failed to realize that the elderly face many challenges with communication during the lockdowns.

Arthur, my grandfather, is a Holocaust survivor who recently celebrated his 97th birthday. He is a strong advocate for education and inspires me to persevere with my medical studies. He lives in a retirement home that had the first COVID-19 outbreak in Montreal in mid-March. Due to this situation, all the residents have had to remain isolated in their apartment rooms for almost three months. Meals are brought to their rooms and there are no longer social activities. Arthur does not use a smartphone or computer. He is also hearing-impaired, making phone calls challenging. Therefore, the recommendations to ease social isolation cannot be applied to Arthur and other elderly people in his position.

I shared this information with the MSIH community and I asked if anybody could email letters that would be printed and mailed to my grandfather. It warms my heart to see how many positive responses I received. Many of my colleagues, faculty and friends wrote kind messages to Arthur, some including pictures of themselves and their families. Letters were written by people hailing from across the globe, such as China, India, Israel, the U.S., Canada and the Czech Republic. Some taught about their countries by writing about their lives back home. Some wrote about their experiences in Israel. Someone wrote a short message in Slovak, which is one of the many languages that Arthur knows. There was even a letter written by the child of a medical student. I am proud to work with such caring and kind individuals. I know that these character traits will help my friends become excellent physicians.

As restrictions loosened, I was fortunately able to visit Arthur with my family on the actual day of his 97th birthday. He still has to stay in his apartment for most of the day, and he can only go outside for 20-minute appointments. However, he remains in good spirits. Arthur looks forward to his 100th birthday, which will fall around the same time that my brother graduates with his engineering degree and I complete medical school.

I am certain that I and the rest of the MSIH community wish for good health and safety to all the elderly people across the world who must stay in isolation due to COVID-19.

As Arthur would say, “Zei Gezunt!”

If you would like to have a message sent to Arthur, please contact me.

Photo: Jesse Wolfsohn and his grandfather, Arthur, light Chanukah candles last December.