Suddenly, it's a whole new game

Canadian sports medicine expert Tony Galea has been helping to rehabilitate injured Israelis esince 2001.

wounded soldier 298.88 (photo credit: Ofer Meir)
wounded soldier 298.88
(photo credit: Ofer Meir)
A resolute thought - "Go to Jerusalem!" - that suddenly and inexplicably popped into the head of Canadian sports medicine expert Dr. Anthony (Tony) Galea five years ago propelled him to immerse himself in Israel, Jewish and Hebrew studies and voluntary assistance to Sheba Medical Center's Rehabilitation Center. Born in Toronto to Catholic parents but non-practising himself, Galea visits Israel every three months, bringing Jewish and non-Jewish groups on missions with the Canadian Friends of Sheba that he founded in 2001. The 45-year-old founder of Toronto's private Institute of Sports Medicine and Human Performance, Galea is also staff physician of the Toronto Argonauts football team and a faculty member of the University of Toronto's department of family medicine. He is also married to a former tennis star, and the father of five (with another on the way) was the team doctor of the Canadian delegation to the Maccabiah Games last year. He doesn't spend much time on academic research, preferring hands-on diagnosis and treatment of his patients and supervision of his institute staff. A graduate of McMaster University Medical School, Galea is recognized as one of the world's top authorities in sports medicine and exercise physiology. SO WHY - and how - does he have so much time for Israel? "It was all by chance, a series of coincidences," says Galea in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "I was busy in my practice in Toronto, and suddenly this order to 'go to Jerusalem' entered my head. I have no explanation. I had never been to Israel, and didn't even know many Jews, other than the owners of the Argonauts, David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski." But although Galea thought it was a crazy idea, he took it seriously. "I called a friend who had been to Israel. He said he was planning to go in a week, and that one member of the group had cancelled, so there was room. I went without the family, and for two weeks spent a lot of time in Jerusalem's Old City, taking in the sights. The streets were empty; it was at the height of the intifada. Such a thing had never happened to me before. I had a fire within me! When I come to Jerusalem now, I am re-energized." His wife didn't understand his motivation, but she was supportive. A week after his return, Galea "by chance" met an Israeli at a dinner. It turned out he was an intelligence officer. "We became friends and he invited me back in December. He showed me facilities for the rehabilitation of soldiers. In the US, sportsmen are treated like VIPs, but in Israel I saw soldiers waiting in lines along with sick old ladies. I would have thought they would get special treatment." IN THE SPRING of 2002, Galea was introduced to Dr. Dan Dolfin in the Defense Ministry, who connected him with Sheba, then headed by Prof. Mordechai Shani. "Shani is a real visionary," says Galea, who was inspired to raise money on his own time in Canada to expand the medical center's rehabilitation facilities. Simultaneously with his tightening links to Israel, he also began to study Torah, Hebrew and Kabbala, and his wife lights candles on the eve of Shabbat. He doesn't say anything about his family converting to Judaism, but admits he now believes in the God of Abraham. His wife has been here twice, and on each trip he brings another of their children, this time 15-year-old son Ryan. When his sports medicine institute staff began to think Israel had become an obsession, he took several of them on his missions and found they became increasingly enthusiastic. "Some of them had even been anti-Israel before they came," says Galea, who identifies himself as an "enthusiastic Zionist" who finds no faults in Israel or Israelis "except that too many have given up the traditions of their fathers and.... their driving is crazy. I'd like one day to own an apartment here." His parents - secular Christians who retired from the cosmetics business and accountancy and live in Malta - "are a bit nervous about my going to Israel, but supportive," he says. "I've been to two or three Olympic Games as a team physician, but when I accompanied the Canadian team to the Maccabiah Games, I had a great time, much more fun than the Olympics," he recalls. "I feel more excitement about being here than at home. Israelis just want to live, but their country is surrounded by enemies who want to destroy it." Galea practices what he preaches about fitness, and is in great shape from tennis, biking, skiing and walking. Prof. Shlomo Noy, head of Sheba's rehabilitation hospital, who has been in contact with Galea almost from the beginning, has high praise for him. "Tony donated a device and computer program he developed called Cybex Isokinetic, which is very useful for the rehabilitation of groups of muscles simultaneously. We treat many high-performance athletes and soldiers with it." Galea stresses not only diagnosis and treatment with new techniques, such as telemetry to map the firing of neurons and "blood patching" for repairing hurt tendons, but also how to prevent sports injuries. "Baseball is boring," Galea adds. "At least for me. There are not many injuries. Gymnastics for children can be especially risky." Noy notes that Sheba's connection with Galea began on a professional basis. "It was not for religious reasons. He was here after the devastating Maxim Restaurant terror attack in Haifa and saw us treating survivors. It really shook him up. Now he is bringing influential Jews and Christians from North America; these are people who have never been here before. His volunteer work is having a significant impact." The Sheba rehabilitation chief notes that rehabilitation after trauma such as road accidents, war injury, terror attacks or work accidents "no longer means the patient lies passively while a physiotherapist gets the exercise. It has become hi-tech and uses virtual reality. There are robots that help patients walk passively. We have a lot of advanced devices, and we're working on expanding them. We have hundreds of beds for the rehabilitation of patients of all ages and in all conditions; it is the largest facility of its kind in Europe. Almost every day during the war in Lebanon, soldiers came to us with paralysis and loss of limbs." Noy's facility currently has between 20 and 25 Israel Defense Forces soldiers in orthopedic and neurological rehabilitation, including the toughest cases. Now Sheba is opening a new department for head trauma, and Galea is helping raise funds for it. "We are sending our chief physiotherapist to Tony's center in Toronto to get training," says Noy, adding that Galea is known for his hyperbaric (high-pressure oxygen) therapy for sports injuries, and has such a chamber at his institute. UNLIKE OTHERS who work to improve athletes' performances, Galea says equipment is less important. "It's the player and not the ball that elevates the sport. Equipment will bring the game up to a certain level, but if you look at players... like Pele... they had beautiful, powerful shots without any technological advances." As to what elevates players, Galea calls it a "neuromuscular sixth sense. You want speed, muscle mass and coordination," he says, "but you have to be able to summon it all at once -- the way the player reacts to the bits of information his brain receives. That's what makes him stand out. Then the ball can come into play." Dr. Naama Constantini, head of sports medicine at the Hadassah Medical Organization's Hadassah Optimal clinics in Jerusalem and former head of sports medicine at the Wingate Institute near Netanya, has watched Galea closely both in Toronto (where she had a year's sabbatical) and in Israel. "He's half magician, very special. He feels things through his fingers and does things for Israel that most others don't." In a separate conversation, Galea calls Constantini "the best, most knowledgeable sports medicine physician in Israel. She has everything it takes." Galea says he would like to raise money on Sheba's behalf to set up a mobile rehabilitation unit for soldiers and others in the periphery that could bring the best equipment and professionals to them in development towns, kibbutzim and other places without them having to come to Tel Hashomer. Israel, he concludes, has a more healthy attitude to sports and competition than in North America. "In the US and Canada, there is a fierce drive to win, not a real love of the game. Placing third is not good enough. It's very sad. Sports reflects life; it involves skill, fair play and teamwork, not winning at all costs. That's why there is an increasing use of drugs to enhance performance. And many parents push their kids to excel, so teenagers drop out and play videogames to escape the pressure. These parents have taken away the love of the game. Kids hardly play outside anymore the way I used to. They eat junk food, drink cola and other beverages full of caffeine. It worries me a great deal." But Israel "has made a huge change in me and the way I run my Toronto center. My business and activities are flourishing even when I'm not there. I'm not worried at all. It's interesting how everything just happened," says Galea in amazement.