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Pandemic expert has Lac La Biche roots and global experience

Abdu Sharkawy is an infectious disease expert who credits Lac La Biche for his passion for people

Lac La Biche-born infectious disease specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy has attained a world-wide viral following for his work with a world-wide viral pandemic

Currently a Toronto-based internal medicine and infectious disease specialist, Sharkawy has been seen on news networks across the country in recent months for his expertise with the COVID-19 pandemic. He has also connected with audiences with an appearance on the syndicated Dr. Phil television show, and a social media posting he wrote on March 5 has been shared 1.9 million times. While his connection to a global audience has been growing, it has also helped him to re-connect to the community he credits for much of his current success.

"I didn't think it would take a pandemic to get me re-acquainted," said Sharkawy during a phone interview with the Lac La Biche POST on Thursday that he said he was "thrilled" to do for his hometown paper. "Since March, the re-connections with people I grew up with ... and others I barely know — it has been phenomenal."

Sharkawy was born in the Lac La Biche community. His father was the Imam at the Al-Kareem mosque in the 1970s. The family moved from the area when Sharkawy was only two, but returned when he was in his teens after his father returned to the mosque as the community's religious leader. He finished high school in Lac La Biche and then studied Medicine at the University of Alberta. He didn't get back to the community much after that. But in the months since he has been one of the expert presenters on the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of hometown connections have been made.

"I've had messages, texts, well-wishes. I really miss the community there and I've been overwhelmed by how they have embraced me and expressed a sense of pride in me — and I'm equally proud to be connected to Lac La Biche," he said, enjoying the opportunity to walk through many memories of a community he once held in "mythical" regard from stories his parents told him.

"For years after I moved away the first time, I would hear the stories of Lac La Biche from my parents of the rich backgrounds, the wonderful people, the culture, the extremely resourceful community ... it was just mythical in my mind, how kind the people were ... it all seemed 'fantasy-like.'"

Memory lane

The myth had a bit of a wobble when his parents drove him back to the community when he was 13. The family had been living in several large cities across North America in the years since he had left. They left New York prior to the return — and arriving in a town of 2,500 people was a big change.

"It was quite the culture shock," he said with a laugh. "Seeing that Main Street as we drove in ... I'd never seen anything like this in my life."

It didn't take long for the family to fall into step with the vibrant a cultural community. And within a short time, Sharkawy said he understood why his parents spoke so favourably of the rural Alberta town. 

Delivery driver, mountain climber, doctor

The doctor, currently at Toronto Western Hospital and an assistant professor with the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Toronto, has a wealth of experience, including work at inner city hospitals and in the slums of Africa. He has provided care and education during HIV outbreaks, Hepatitis,TB, SARS, Measles, Shingles, Whooping cough and Diphtheria. He has also scaled Mount Kilimanjaro. All of that — in part — is powered by his formative years in Lac La Biche, he says.

He remembers part-time jobs at Oasis Sales and Service, driving the IGA delivery van, outdoor work for the Town of Lac La Biche's public works department and working for Duane and Linda Young at the La Biche Inn. He might have worked at Hamar's grocery store as well ... "Maybe I did," he said with a smile, explaining that what he does remember are the people of the community and how the lessons he learned from the community were amplified by the education he received in the high school classrooms. "Esim Fayad, Zanra Gargus-Lind, Bruce Adolf, Steve Kamelchuk — and lots of others — Marilyn Coli was the guidance counsellor. I had a fantastic high school education... I was in a public school system in a very small town — and I had a phenomenal education."

Sharkawy said whether it was a weekend at Plamondon's Humdinger Days, or Pow Wow Days, an afternoon hanging out in front of Sam's Meats or a picnic in the park to celebrate the Eid celebration following Ramadan, the community was like a large family.

"I have warm and rich memories of how tight-knit it was, with the Indigenous, the Lebanese, Ukrainians, French ... everybody was a real family and they all celebrated their different backgrounds," he said.  "I think what is so special about Lac La Biche is it was the first time in my life that I wasn't afraid of making deep personal connections, of making profound and enduring relationships."

Those personal connections are something Sharkawy emphasizes in his continuing education about the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his social media posting that went viral, the doctor said the coronavirus doesn't scare him as much as the mass panic that has been associated with it. He fears that people will overlook other people and the well-being of others in favour of unfounded hysteria.

"Temper fear with reason, panic with patience and uncertainty with education," he writes in the posting

Regular hand washing paired with common sense can reduce the spread of the disease, Sharkawy says. The specialist has spoken to Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi about making sure that plans are in place to assist some vulnerable communities in the region. Sharkawy has said that the demographics of many Indigenous communities will see mult-generations living in one home. In some cases, the infrastructure in rural communities that allow for clean running water is also lacking. 

"I do worry that if if COVID-19 made its way into one of those communities, it could be quite disastrous."

Hometown advice on COVID

When asked about any advantages to living in a smaller community in comparison to larger centres during the pandemic, the doctor said the outdoor open spaces that are abundant throughout the Lakeland region offer rural residents a chance to stretch their muscles and their minds. He also said that researchers are now understanding that the virus isn't as mobile outdoors as once thought.

"We are learning that the degree of risk from outdoor transmission is much, much smaller than belived initially. When we see people in parks, or in protests, it appears the likelihood — while not negligible — is extremely low," he said, but added  with emphasis that social distancing protocols, the use of facemasks and continuing education about the virus must be maintained.

In the case of the Lac La Biche County municipality, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic protocols were put into place in March. Sharkawy said that can give residents a false sense of security. Low numbers of cases don't mean low chances of risk, he said.

"It is not impossible in terms of an outbreak. All I can tell people is to look at the cautionary tales from around the world," Sharkawy said, quoting a quip from Benjamin Franklin."To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail."

Knowing small communities as he does, the disease specialist hopes the level of caring and neighbourly attention will continue as the COVID-19 precautions do.

"We will get through this, and when we do, we can be proud of the resilience and the commitment to each other we have shown."

Sharkawy hopes to visit Lac La Biche next summer with his family.