NB med school top of its class

It may just be a year old, but New Brunswick’s medical school already has some of the most advanced technology on the continent. Or at least they’re using it in a most advanced fashion.

As per the usual classroom setting, a professor delivers a lecture and students take notes, ask questions which the professor then tries to answer. The thing is, more than 400 kilometres separate pupil and teacher.

The school is being hosted at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, but is actually an expansion of the medical school in Halifax, and is formally called Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick. The goal is to give New Brunswick students an opportunity to learn medicine in their own province, but without sacrificing quality of education. By using the high-definition video-conferencing equipment, students get the exact same education as their colleagues in Nova Scotia.

And now they’ve installed the equipment at four hospitals across the province so students completing their clerkship can be equally linked to their peers.

“It’s just a real tremendous improvement,” Pamela Bourque, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick’s program manager, said of the new installations, which took place in June. The four hospitals are located in Saint John, Fredericton, Miramichi and Moncton.

Each video-conferencing classroom is identical, with grey walls and light grey wall-hangings, medium brown tables, pleasant lighting and carpets with a grey-toned, geometric design. This way, the two parties feel more like they’re in the same room. At the front of the room are three large flat screens. During class, one displays the professor, the second the material, and the third screen shows the other students sitting in Halifax.

Sheldon Wood is going into his second year – or M2 – at the Saint John location. After next year, Wood will start his clerkship at a New Brunswick hospital, where he will be able to take advantage of the new equipment expansion. He admits that he was at first skeptical about not having the professor in front of him, but said he didn’t notice a difference. He said there is no noticeable time gap between a student asking a question in Saint John and a professor responding in Halifax – the broadcast transmission is that instantaneous.

The professor can even see the student, thanks to a table buzzer. There’s one for every two student seats, and when pressed, a camera at the front of the room swivels to point there and the student appears on the screen in front of the professor.

Representatives from other medical schools across the country have already visited Saint John to see and possibly copy the set-up. Ken Lerette is the technical operations manager at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick and said they’ve given tours to representatives from the University of Toronto and even Saudi Arabia.

The pilot year passed virtually flawlessly, Bourque said. She estimates that if you added up all the time that was used to fix technological problems, they probably only lost about 17 minutes of class time, over five incidents. Two impressive, futuristic central command centres in Saint John and Halifax handle all the troubleshooting and maintenance.

While similar video-conferencing equipment has been used for long-distance education, this is the most advanced system for medical education.

Previously published July 25, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Couple helping abandoned puppies to recover

When seven puppies were abandoned on the side of a highway to die, Denise Tramble said she and her husband didn’t hesitate.

“Yes, we will take these puppies,” she told Moncton Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She hadn’t even seen them yet. The next day she brought two carrying cases full of two-week-old husky-mix pups to her home in Moncton.

RCMP officers had found them in a box beside a northern New Brunswick road on July 10 and called in the report that they were dead. Then they heard a faint yelp. Miraculously, all were still alive. But the puppies, who had likely sat on the side of the road for 36 hours on a hot day, were severely dehydrated and barely moving.

They were rushed to the veterinarian and then to the Moncton society, where Denise volunteers.

Denise and her husband Steve agreed to foster the puppies, which will need constant love and care.

“It was the right thing to do,” Steve said.

Denise isn’t working currently, so she’s usually able to stay home with them, but she said they also have neighbours and friends working in shifts to help out. And there’s plenty of helping to do.

For the first two days, the seven puppies – each of which is named after a Snow White dwarf – were fed every two hours, though that has since been lengthened to four-hour increments. They suckle from baby bottles filled with a mixture of puppy formula, evaporated milk, corn syrup and water. They are burped after meals, exercised in the backyard and snuggled often.

The Trambles usually keep their home phone unplugged so it doesn’t wake dozing puppies. The “puppy room” – formerly known as the spare bedroom – is equipped with a baby monitor. Denise and Steve don’t get much sleep, but they said it’s all worth it.

“I’m in puppy heaven,” Denise said. “They bring such joy to me.”

Her voice chokes over the phone line when she mentions the mystery person who left them for dead.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t cry,” she said.

Denise hopes the media attention will help expose whoever abandoned the puppies.

“I want them charged, I want them fined, I want them with a permanent criminal record,” she said.

There is no shame in bringing a litter of puppies to the Moncton Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Denise said. To do so costs only $50, she said.

By Wednesday they’d had the puppies for a week. The day also marked the couple’s eighth anniversary. But, Denise said they’ve been so wrapped up in the puppies neither of them realized it until the reminder alarm on her phone went off. Celebrations will likely involve taking the puppies outside to play, she said.

When the puppies are six to eight weeks old, they will be ready for adoption. Interested parties can submit an application, and if approved can buy the pup for $200 (the Moncton society runs mainly off donations and adoption fees), with a deposit of $100 that is returned once the puppy has been spayed or neutered. There are four males and three female pups.

Previously published July 21, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Researchers monitoring salt water in wells

Sea water is gradually seeping into the drinking water wells along the Northumberland Strait, a University of New Brunswick researcher says.

While no one’s gotten sick yet the future looks grim, Kerry MacQuarrie said.

Climate change experts warn of rising sea levels, which have the unfortunate side effect of leaving groundwater sources ruined by salt water intrusion.

MacQuarrie is looking specifically at the coastal community of Richibucto, where the water has a history of being too salty. The two-year project is part of the Atlantic Regional Adaptation Collaborative, which is a branch of a larger federal climate change planning initiative.

“We would say that the issue is definitely there in Richibucto now,” said Robert Hughes, an adaptation co-ordinator at the Department of Environment. Hughes manages the province’s various climate change adaptation programs, which includes MacQuarrie’s salt water intrusion project.

While Richibucto’s water is currently well within the Canadian drinking water standards, studying the case could illuminate possible future problems and solutions, MacQuarrie said. When the water does eventually become too salty, Richibucto could serve as the model for other communities’ action plans.

About a decade ago, Richibucto was forced to abandon a well and drill a replacement in a new location when the salt water intrusion became a real issue. It resolved the problem, but the town’s seaside location still puts it at risk.

While salt is essential to a healthy diet, too much can be dangerous. Sodium and chloride occur naturally in groundwater, but high levels can turn the water corrosive and damage household plumbing, not to mention cause a salty taste.

“You can’t drink seawater, as everyone knows,” Hughes said.

But rising oceans aren’t the only cause. Higher demand for water means excessive pumping and the groundwater doesn’t have time to replenish with fresh rain or snowmelt. With nothing to stand in its way, the lower, denser salt water is suctioned into the well’s reserves.

“The concern is that if salt water really gets into those aquifers, it’s pretty much there. It doesn’t go away again. That groundwater area is no longer useful,” Hughes said.

MacQuarrie is measuring sodium and chloride levels in Richibucto’s wells with his project partner Karl Butler, a geophysicist at UNB.

Working with two of the university’s master’s students, they shoot electric currents about the power of a car battery through the water. Electricity passes through salt water more easily than fresh water, so the measured conductivity indicates daily levels. The technique is well-established and causes no harm to humans or the water, MacQuarrie said.

With their data in hand, MacQuarrie and Butler then create 3D worlds on their computer screens in which they control a well’s hypothetical pumping rate or possible sea-level rise, among other variables, and see the effect. They also assess where the salt water is beneath the surface. Combined, the findings could be the basis for an action plan.

The project ends around next March or April, MacQuarrie said.

Previously published July 20, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Prof pans taking obese kids from parents

In the wake of a Harvard researchers’ recommendation that parents of severely obese children lose custody of their kids, a New Brunswick child obesity specialist says it shouldn’t – and won’t – happen.

In the July 13 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association, Lindsey Murtagh and David Ludwig wrote a commentary that urged action on the childhood obesity pandemic that is sweeping the continent. They argue that, in the same way that feeding a kid too little is considered neglect, so too should feeding them too much.

“In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable … because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems,” the article states.

“State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors.”

But Gabriela Tymowski thinks it’s an extreme measure. She is an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick and was the founding director of the university’s 2004 Learning Eating Activity Program, which worked with families and children who were dealing with obesity.

Tymowski said the suggestion reflects the growing concern that childhood obesity rates are not abating.

“I think a lot of people … are just unsure of what to do,” she said.

Murtagh and Ludwig – who Tymowski said are two of the world’s leading researchers on the subject – acknowledged the possible legal problems, genetic exceptions and controversial ethics tangled in the idea.

“Where would we send those kids?” Tymowski said.

When more than half of New Brunswick’s adult population is overweight, she doubts foster families would be better equipped than anyone else to care for a morbidly obese child.

In New Brunswick 34 per cent of children are overweight or obese, she said. In comparison, the Canadian average for overweight or obese kids is 26 per cent.

“And overweight kids become overweight adults,” Tymowski said.

Obesity is not only linked to depression and stigmatization, but it can also have real and significant impacts on the health care system.

Tymowski said obesity-related chronic health problems will bankrupt the province if something doesn’t change.

The article, which spawned a flurry of passionate debate within the American media, states that, if implemented, this measure would affect only severely obese children. That is to say kids with a body mass index at or beyond the 99th percentile.

Tymowski said some 60 families who were dealing with obese children participated the Learning Eating Activity Program, which was discontinued after five years of operation.

Of those, she said maybe one or two might have been classified as morbidly obese.

These individuals are largely invisible to society because they aren’t as mobile. While Tymowski can’t think of any Canadian cases in which a child was removed from a family, there have been a few extreme cases in the United States and the United Kingdom, she said.

But, even though it would affect a miniscule fraction of the population, Tymowski said that taking a child from their family isn’t the best way to tackle the problem.

There are social and economic factors to account for, among other considerations, she said.

“It’s far more complicated than we ever thought.”

Previously published July 29, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Lichens point to cleaner air quality

Saint John’s air is getting cleaner, according to the crusty, green vegetation that dots tree trunks around the city.

Stephen Clayden, the head of botany and mycology (the study of fungus) at the New Brunswick Museum, has been researching how tree lichens can tip off changes in air quality. He’s found evidence that there is less sulphur dioxide floating around Saint John. Sulphur dioxide – not to be confused with the gas that gives natural hot springs their signature rotten egg smell – is toxic. It emits a sharp, acrid smell, Clayden said, like burnt matches.

Breathe in too much of it, and a person could experience breathing problems, respiratory illness, or worsening of cardiovascular disease. Someone with asthma would be particularly sensitive.

High concentrations of sulphur dioxide also cause acid rain, which deteriorates buildings and poisons crops and lakes. It can also burn away lichens on trees.

“It’s a nasty pollutant,” Clayden said. Most of the area’s lichens appear to share the sentiment.

Lichens are picky. Different species can grow in some of the most extreme climates in the world, from Antarctica to the Sahara, but each kind is very sensitive to the environment that suits it. This makes lichens the canaries of the coal mine when it comes to the environment.

For instance, most of the lichens native to the Saint John area tend to die off when there is too much sulphur dioxide in the air.

In the mid-1970s, Saint John only had about a half a dozen species of tree lichens, Clayden said. Now there are more than 40 species just in King’s Square. More diversity usually means a healthier environment, he said.

While the general variety of lichens is going up, the population of one particular species is simultaneously declining. But this species was introduced from Europe and thrives in high-sulphur conditions.

Clayden’s study results haven’t been published yet, but from what he’s seen so far, the Saint John’s air quality in the core area is significantly improving.

“It’s a great success story,” said David Coon, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

A report on New Brunswick air quality, released Tuesday by the provincial Department of Environment, is similarly positive. It reported that the 2009 levels of sulphate in precipitation – a measure of acid rain – were the lowest on record since New Brunswick began acid rain monitoring in 1986.

In the same year, Saint John had the fewest instances when emissions exceeded air quality standards for sulphur dioxide.

Clayden said he thinks the shift might be because industries are trying to cut their sulphur emissions and are using cleaner fuel, in response to government capping.

Still, Statistics Canada recently reported that sulphur dioxide accounted for almost 40 per cent of substances released in the air across Canada.

Coon said while the government’s efforts to lower sulphur dioxide levels has been impressive, there is still lots of work to be done to target greenhouse gases.

Previously published July 14, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Major layoffs at AECL

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. is bracing for a mass layoff that would cut 900 employees, according to a memo obtained by the Telegraph-Journal.

This would eliminate about 40 per cent of the company’s workforce, says a union official.

Michael Ivanco is the vice-president of the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates, which represents many employees for AECL. A couple hundred of those employees are New Brunswickers, he said.

However, he didn’t yet know how many of the proposed layoffs would affect New Brunswick employees.

“That’s all to be determined … There are a lot of negotiations that will have to happen,” he said.

He said the union will be sitting down with management to discuss ways to decrease the impact. One method, Ivanco said, is to offer older employees termination packages.

Ivanco visited New Brunswick a couple weeks ago and said the majority of AECL’s workforce in the province is made up of young people, mostly in their 20s and early 30s.

But he said even if a lot of younger people keep their jobs, problems remain. The company would lose a lot of experience and years in the field.

“It’s a very narrow line to walk,” he said.

For the younger employees who will be set adrift, post-AECL options might be few and far between, he said.

A lot of projects are just wrapping up, Ivanco said. The Bruce Power Restart project and a project in South Korea are coming to an end, and the Point Lepreau project will be done in about a year, he said.

After that, there are a few projects on the horizon, but they won’t be hiring for a few years.

“There’s a lot of work five years down the road, but when you look one year down, maybe not so much.”

The layoffs are set to happen between July and September. Ivanco said within a month there will be a little more clarity for the non-unionized staff and the managers. Uncertainty will last longer for the unionized staff, which will be negotiating more with the new owners.

“It’s been quite an embarrassment to be so over budgeted and so behind schedule,” Ivanco said.

The memo revealed about 310 scientists and engineers, 155 technologists, 240 non-unionized support staff, 45 draftspersons and 150 people in management will be let go. The layoff announcement comes in the wake of the federal government’s recent $15 million deal with SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian engineering firm.

Previously published July 1, 2011; Telegraph-Journal, Daily Gleaner

Seven’s a crowd for Fundy tourism

As Bernard Weber counted down from seven, the crowd lowered their umbrellas, threw their collective hands into the air and looked skyward.

Rain had been falling on and off for about an hour, but cheers still rang out from a crowd assembled in a number 7 formation when Weber got to “one.”

The Giant 7 event, held Wednesday evening on the Saint John Waterfront, was designed to promote the Bay of Fundy for the New7Wonders of the World.

Terri McCulloch, the executive director for Bay of Fundy tourism, said afterward that she was very pleased with how it went.

“We were aiming for 777 people and I think we got that,” she said.

The outline of the giant seven, which she estimates was about 200 feet wide and 300 feet long, was fitted for about that many people she said, and it was pretty full.

In the hour leading up to an official photo session, passersby were stopped on the boardwalk and recruited, offered free New7Wonders t-shirts. Three-year-old children ran around on the dock as the Black Eyed Peas blared from the speakers. Two teenagers, 13 and 15-years-old, stashed their bmx bikes against the lighthouse and walked through the gates.

Seven members of the Daley family were there too (an unplanned numeric coincidence). As Patti watched her four-year old son Sebastian dance to Kenny Loggins’ Footloose, with his t-shirt fluttering about his ankles, she said they were there to support the Bay of Fundy.

As frequent visitors to the bay, she said they would love to see the site instated as one of the new wonders of the world.

“It’s just a special place to be,” Daley said.

Weber, who founded the New7Wonders foundation and is now travelling around the world to encourage people to vote, said he hoped the event would spread that passion to the rest of Canada.

Fundy is Canada’s only entry in the event. And while he said he doesn’t like to dwell on this aspect of the contest, he acknowledged that being one of the seven could bring huge economic return for a country.

Weber said seven is the number that most people can remember. The seven sites that get the most votes will be in the global memory forever, he said.

Before the event started, Weber pulled from the inside pocket of his jacket five old photographs. They were from his first visit to the Bay of Fundy 20 years ago. As his fingers glazed the faded photographs he said he remembers the daily tidal phenomenon being incredible.

“It’s like the heartbeat of the world,” he said.

People can vote for the Bay of Fundy online for free at http://www.votemyfundy.com . They can also vote from their mobile phones by texting FUNDY to 77077 ($0.25 per text vote). Voting continues until New7Wonders of Nature declaration day on Nov. 11, 2011.

Previously published June 30, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Research project to test viability of on-land salmon farming

Salmon farming is moving on land.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Conservation Fund are joining forces in a research project that will try to rear salmon in a freshwater closed-containment system.

“It’s huge, it’s groundbreaking,” Bill Taylor, the federation’s president, said. “Hopefully it will help us move towards much more environmentally friendly and wild-salmon friendly aquaculture.”

Over the next year, the federation plans to grow 10 tonnes of salmon in a circular, stainless-steel tank that is slightly larger than an Olympic swimming pool.

The Conservation Fund, an American non-profit organization, has successfully conducted similar trials with St. John River salmon in smaller qualities, but Taylor said this project is the first trial of this magnitude. Taylor said the project’s budget is $120,000.

Jonathan Carr, the federation’s director of research and environment, said the goal is to provide an environmentally friendly solution to the growing global demand for salmon.

He said there has been concern in recent years about farmed salmon escaping their confines and contaminating wild fish stocks. The on-land, closed-containment system would eliminate this risk, Carr said.

It would also result in a better product for consumers, since pesticides and harsh chemicals would no longer be necessary to raise the fish to maturity. And farmers would be able to charge more for the higher quality, making it cost competitive, Taylor said.

He added that commercial salmon farming is on the brink of maxing out its growth potential. On-land fish farms could be the answer to global demand for salmon, which continues to rise, he said.

But this may be a pipe dream, according to some. Pamela Parker is the executive director for the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association.

“Closed containment is not the magic bullet that some people make it out to be,” she said.

There are significant questions surrounding energy usage and the amount of water that a large-scale operation would use, she said.

Every minute, 5,000 litres of water would pass through the system. However, Taylor said 99.8 per cent of it would be recirculated into the ground, just as clean as when it entered their system.

While Taylor said he couldn’t see closed-containment farms replacing existing fish farm operations, he said it would be great to see in the future. But what may work on a small scale doesn’t always translate to a functional, large-scale operation, Parker said.

To be economically viable, Carr said they would need to grow two to three thousand tonnes. In comparison, Parker said, New Brunswick fish farmers produce a total of 35 thousand metric tonnes of salmon.

To match that output, the tanks would need to cover the space of about 8,000 football fields, Parker said.

“we’re very supportive of new research,” she said, “we’re just not convinced … (this) could be justified.”

The project will be housed in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Taylor said, “there’s certainly risk but we think it’s very low.”

Previously published June 24, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Head-on crash kills three

David Basque never got to see his second child.

Basque, 45, was one of three people killed in a three-vehicle crash in Inkerman Ferry on the Acadian Peninsula late Friday night. He left behind a young daughter and his pregnant wife, Renée.

Police are expected to release the names of the other two crash victims today.

Jean-Albert Chiasson remembers Basque as a hardworking, much-beloved member of the Lamèque community.

He owned blueberry fields and a machine shop, Chiasson said, and would clear people’s snow in the winter with his tractor.

Chiasson owns Garage Central Lamèque, which is where the crumpled vehicles now sit.

“The trucks are gone, the car is gone, everything is gone,” he said. “That’s the worst accident I’ve ever seen.”

In the days since the accident, hundreds of people from all over the surrounding area have gathered at Chiasson’s garage to see the wreckage.

Standing solemnly in the rain, members of the community have tried to piece together what happened.

The investigation is ongoing, said Const. Jean-Francois Dulac. Official details should be available in about a week.

But from what Chiasson’s gathered, Basque was driving along Route 113 in his 4×4 Dodge Ram that night, following a dark car towing a trailer. The trailer held a box of bees and a forklift.

At around 10:30 p.m., they came to a curve and became involved in an accident with an oncoming vehicle, also a Dodge Ram, carrying a man from British Columbia who was working at a wind farm in Lamèque.

Basque and the driver of the other Dodge Ram died, as did a man in the vehicle towing a trailer. A women in that vehicle was taken to hospital with injuries.

When Dulac got there, he said the air was filled with buzzing bees, with a thousand more dead on the road.

Dulac said about 30 people, including firemen, police, paramedics, a gas station attendant and other community members, gathered on the road to help and watch.

In Lamèque, which has a population of about 1,500, people are really feeling the pain of losing a member of their community, said Dulac. Everyone knew Basque, he said.

“It’s very tough for the community.”

Previously published June 20, 2011; Telegraph-Journal