| Magazine Feature |

Diamond Treatment     

Toronto’s beloved pediatrician Dr. Colin Geft sees big potential in the littlest patients

Photos: Chaya Kessler

Many years ago, there was young boy from Toronto who was convinced that his pediatrician liked Pepsi. And so he’d bring a can along to appointments and hand them to his doctor. “Thank you!” the doctor would say, smiling widely. “I’m going to put this into my refrigerator!” The child beamed. At the end of the appointment, the doctor would turn to the boy and say, “Since you gave me a can of Pepsi, I’m going to give you one as well.” He would retrieve a can from the fridge and hand it to his young patient, who would beam again.

Decades have passed since I figured out the gimmick, but the older I get, the more I realize how that simple story embodies the depth of what has made Dr. Colin Geft into the intensely beloved pediatrician that he is.

Dr. Geft’s account of the journey that led him to the pivotal role he currently occupies is one that I, and all Torontonians, was eager to hear.

For 43 years he has been the master at diagnosing something greater than illness and healing through something more powerful than medicine.

For 43 years, his office has been the desperate destination for broken hearts as much as fractured bones.

And after 43 years, Dr. Geft sees his patients as the adults he always encouraged them to become.

The can of Pepsi may no longer be in his refrigerator, but as Dr. Geft invites me inside his office, I can feel the love it represented as vibrant as ever.


Back in Time

If it weren’t medically inadvisable, I would have driven from my parents’ home to Dr. Geft’s office in my sleep. Even as Toronto skyrockets in commercial and residential development, these few blocks remain stubbornly stagnant. There’s the butcher, the baker, no candlestick maker but a shoemaker (which rhymes just the same) and then…. A traffic light declaring the end of the shtetl-like stretch of road. A left turn then shows a steep incline leading to a sprawling parking lot adjacent to a timeworn, sub-corporate medical building. A glass door opens to a very modest hallway marked by library-like quiet and the faint scent of rubbing alcohol.

Directly to the right is an equally modest door which displays a simple plaque: “Dr. Colin Geft.”

I turn the doorknob that I’d watched my mother turn a hundred times, and I’m instantly transported from the silent sterile to the warm, the welcoming, and the so, so familiar.

Practically nothing has changed since I last walked in complaining of a sore throat. The same chairs line the waiting room, the same pictures and puzzles adorn the walls. There were never computers in Dr. Geft’s office, and that continues to hold true.

It was the photographer who spotted the box of stickers that greets you immediately upon entering the office. The box looks slightly modernized and the note now says, “take three small ones” — significant inflation since our days when it was one per customer. “Business is booming,” Dr. Geft says, smiling.

The one thing that most certainly has not changed is the South African accent, smooth as melted chocolate and laced with penetrating intellect.

Rooms one, two, and three are all blasts from the past, but now I’m led into forbidden territory — Dr. Geft’s own office, simply designed with understated dignity.

I eye the phone placed on his desk; if it could speak, oh the stories it would tell. How many hundreds of thousands of phone calls it has intermediated, how many anxious questions it has heard and soothing responses it has delivered.

Now might be the first time that the questions are turned around. It’s not us asking about ourselves — we’re here to ask Dr. Geft about Dr. Geft. The four decades of standing as a loyal servant to Toronto’s Jewish community, with broad shoulders stooping just low enough to cry upon, have left us with some lingering questions.

How did he achieve such soaring popularity?

How does he manage to see so many patients and field so many phone calls in a single day?

Why is it that no patient would ever forget to invite him to a bar mitzvah, vort, wedding, or, at times, even to speak at a sheva brachos?

Dr. Geft lets us in on the secret.

Family of Fixers

“I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa,” Dr. Geft says, “one of three children, and my family was always frum. My father was the only young person I knew who learned Gemara.” South Africa, Dr. Geft explains, was home to approximately 120,000 Jews, some 40,000 of them who lived in Cape Town. “My older brother, Ivor, is a cardiologist living in Los Angeles. My younger brother, Shmuel, lives in Yerushalayim and works as a motor mechanic. And so we all fix things.”

Dr. Geft attended the Herzlia School and did very well. “I loved school,” he says, “I go to every reunion — most recently, the 50th anniversary since our graduation, which was celebrated in 2016.”

There’s a rule that every Dr. Geft patient knows: Never come late. His schedule is as accurate as an atomic clock; he is always on time, and he expects the same from those wishing to see him. This level of discipline may come naturally but there’s plenty of nurture as well.

“South Africa has a very disciplined culture,” Dr. Geft shares. “We had a caning system in our school. I was never caned,” he quickly qualifies.

In addition to stressing discipline, South African culture is one of profound respect. “What I learned in South Africa is to respect my teachers. I had the deepest respect for my teachers. And when you respect someone, you can learn from them.”

Dr. Geft held the honorary title of head prefect, both in junior high as well as high school. When it came time to choose a career path, all doors were open, but only one attracted him.

“I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine,” he says. “I was always fascinated by biology and was further inspired by my older brother, who had begun his schooling for cardiology.”

But school would have to wait. At the time, South Africa had mandatory military service, and in 1967, Dr. Geft was conscripted into the South African army.

“Despite the challenges,” he says, “I came in as a frum Jew and left as a frum Jew.”

These challenges included waking up especially early in the morning to put on tefillin, wearing tzitzis and a yarmulke, davening, and carrying around a tray of kosher food while being mocked and laughed at for doing so. “But they couldn’t budge me because I had my principles,” he says.

Upon completing his military service, Dr. Geft enrolled in the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa’s most prestigious teaching hospital. Dr. Geft reflects on a powerful moment he experienced just before beginning school.

“I got to meet Dr. Christiaan Barnard, the doctor who performed the first heart transplant in history.” Dr. Barnard served as the head of the Department of Experimental Surgery at the Groote Schuur Hospital, where the operation took place. “Here I was, about to begin medical school, and I was meeting someone who had made it to the top.”

Dr. Geft underwent intense training in the Groote Schuur Hospital, graduating in 1973. Part of the training had been a pediatrics course. “I walked away from that course knowing one thing: I am not going into pediatrics.”

Dr. Geft explains that in South Africa, there really weren’t any pediatricians. Children were treated by their family doctor.

“Pediatricians were doctors who worked in children’s hospitals and treated only the very seriously ill children,” he says. Dr. Geft’s passion, though, was to maintain a practice that would include advice, guidance, and a strong interpersonal dynamic. “I wanted to become a family doctor,” he shares. “For this reason, in my internship, I did six months of medicine, six months of surgery, six months of obstetrics, and six months of pediatrics. I intended to use all of this information to practice family medicine.”

But during the six months of practicing pediatrics on an operational level, Dr. Geft had a revelation. “It became clear to me that children are innocent bystanders of their medical condition. Primary pediatric care would have to include total family involvement. I could get the same satisfaction from pediatrics as I could from family medicine.”

Dr. Geft intended on pursuing a residency in Cape Town’s Red Cross War Memorial Hospital but Hashem had other plans.

“I was in Johannesburg on vacation and my host brought me to the Chabad shul,” Dr. Geft recalls. Someone approached the young doctor and asked, “Are you married?” Dr. Geft replied in the negative.

“Well,” the fellow said, “there’s a nice girl in town from Montreal. Her name is Arlene Lebovits, and she’s here for the bris of her sister’s newborn son. Would you want to meet her?”

“I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ ” Dr. Geft laughs at the memory. “I told him, ‘She’s from Montreal. I live a thousand miles south of there. What’s the point in meeting?’ ”

But on Sunday, the persistent fellow brought it up again. This time, Dr. Geft relented. “We met and we each immediately saw a bright future in our relationship.”

Arlene relocated to Johannesburg where she stayed in her sister’s home as they continued to date. Dr. Geft, likewise, changed tracks, leaving the Cape Town residency and assuming a pediatric residency at the Transvaal Memorial Hospital for Children in Johannesburg. In February of 1976, the two married and began their life together in Johannesburg.

Dr. Geft had completed his residency in Transvaal Memorial Hospital for Children and was now working in the pediatrics department of Baragwanath Hospital, located in Soweto (a half hour drive from Johannesburg). The year was 1976 when the region was rocked by what is now known as the Soweto uprising. Protests against apartheid were met by brutal police force, and the entire political institution was teetering dangerously. Serious health issues began to result from this lack of stability and the children entering the pediatrics ward were in terrible condition.

“We were losing children with every admission,” Dr. Geft recalls. But there was one experience that convinced Dr. Geft that remaining in South Africa was no longer possible. “We were doing our rounds and, suddenly, I noticed that a child wasn’t breathing. ‘Quick!’ I yelled. ‘Bring the resuscitation cart!’

“But the senior doctor held back. ‘Let him be,’ he said. ‘He’s better off this way.’”

Even after all these years, Dr. Geft’s eyes tear up when repeating this story. “The doctor spoke out of love. He cared for the child and didn’t want him to endure what so many South African children were going through. But I looked at the doctor and said, ‘I cannot. I cannot do this any longer.’”

His wife’s Canadian citizenship turned out to be serendipitous. Being married to a Canadian made emigration to Canada an easy and viable option. But although Mrs. Geft hailed from Montreal, home would be some three hundred miles away.

“To practice in Montreal, I was required to take my internship over again,” says Dr. Geft, “but Toronto did not have that requirement. In 1977, I joined the Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto for a three-year residency.”

Dr. Geft has an unwavering commitment to Torah study, waking up at 4:30 in the morning to learn the daf, then attending a shiur given by Rabbi Asher Bornstein which runs from 5:45 a.m. to 6:45 a.m., and then reviewing the daf in the evening. It was ultimately this dedication that served as the impetus to his hanging out a shingle and opening a pediatrics practice to call his own. It all began by a chance conversation which took place in the fairly new Toronto kollel, led by revered rosh kollel Rav Shlomo Miller.

“I introduced myself to Rav Shlomo’s father-in-law, Rav Moshe Rivlin. He asked me what I do, and I told him that I’m a pediatrician. He immediately picked up the phone, called his daughter, Rebbetzin Miller, and said, ‘Nechama, you have a new pediatrician.’”

And so it began. Rebbetzin Miller had friends and they, too, learned about the new pediatrician in town. Within two years, the practice was full.

And while surely parents were attracted to Dr. Geft’s efficiency, vast medical knowledge, and incisive diagnostics, there was something beyond medicine that was capturing the hearts of his many patients and their families.


From the Heart

“I see children as uncut diamonds that need polishing,” says Dr. Geft, “and I believe I play a major role in allowing their brilliance to shine through.”

Dr. Geft shares a story to prove his point. “I went to the vort of one of my girls,” he relates (this is how Dr. Geft refers to his patients — “my girls,” or “my boys”), “and the mother of the kallah introduced me to the mother of the chassan. She said, ‘This is Dr. Geft, our pediatrician.’

“The chassan’s mother looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said ‘What do you mean? I came for the vort!’

“The mother looked bewildered. ‘I would never invite our pediatrician to my child’s vort!’ she said.

“I looked at her and said, ‘If I have only been a pediatrician to this girl then I’ve failed. I’m here because I’ve guided this child. I’ve given my heart to her.’ ”

That single dialogue is the explanation for a 43-year phenomenon. In Dr. Geft, Torontonians see a doctor, a life coach, a guide, and a staunch supporter of their growth and well-being in all areas — physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

“There was a boy who wasn’t doing well, struggling in school and with his Yiddishkeit in general,” Dr. Geft shares. “After hours we held session after session, with his mother in attendance. I would pour my heart out to him, but he wouldn’t listen. He was looking anywhere but at me. Then, one day, he suddenly looks me in the eye and says, ‘I know why you’re doing this! Because you get paid!’

“I said, ‘You’re right. I get paid. You know how much?’ The boy looked at me curiously. ‘How much?’ ‘Thirty-five dollars,’ I told him. The boy looked shocked and asked, ‘So why are you doing this?’ I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Because I care about you.’ That, says Dr. Geft, was a changing point. From that day on, the boy took a dramatic turn to the right, and, as a grown adult involved in kiruv, sends pictures to Dr. Geft of himself, long beard and all, and the many kiruv initiatives he’s involved in.

It was a rare moment in which the brilliant shine within the uncut diamond was able to wrestle free right before Dr. Geft’s eyes. But sometimes, the effect of his deep care and concern can take years to prove fruitful.

An ongoing issue that Dr. Geft is extremely passionate about is what he calls a SAD reality — SAD being an acronym for Smoking, Alcohol, Drugs. “I’ve seen wonderful people destroying themselves by engaging in these activities,” he says.

One day, Dr. Geft got a call from a local school. Eight boys were caught smoking marijuana — “three of them were my boys.’’ The school sent these three to Dr. Geft and he saw them each, one at a time. “Two of them left with their tails between their legs, but one was defiant.” The boy listed three justifications for what he had done.

“He said, ‘First of all, it releases stress. Second of all, they use marijuana in medicine. Thirdly, all I smoked was marijuana, nothing worse than that.’ ”

The discussion ended there and it wasn’t until six years later that it resumed. “The boy came into my office together with his parents, and he was in a terrible state. I looked at him and said, ‘Six years ago you told me that marijuana releases stress — how are we doing now? Six years ago, you told me, “it’s only marijuana, nothing else.” How are we doing now?’

“That boy turned right,” Dr. Geft says. “I danced at his chasunah.”


Rooted in Respect

What is it about Dr. Geft’s message that makes such a strong impact? How is he able to transform an entire future with a single statement?

There’s a one-word answer to this question: Respect.

All Dr. Geft patients know that no matter how young a patient might be, no request goes without a “please” and adherence is always followed with a “thank you.”

Dr. Geft acknowledges this as well, and in fact, he references this practice as part of his role as a guide to children. “If a mother tells me that a child is misbehaving at home, I look at the child and say: ‘I want you to know. When you were two and three and four years old, if I wanted you to open your mouth for a strep test, I would say ‘please open your mouth.’ Then, when you did as I asked, I said ‘thank you.’ I’m older than you but I saw you as a person and treated you with respect. I want you to treat your parents that way as well.’ ”

“Whether small or big,” says Dr. Geft, “one day, they’ll become big.”

About two years ago, Toronto was privileged to welcome a new member to its medical community: Dr. Mayer Grunfeld. Dr. Grunfeld completed his residency in 2021 but decided to continue his education — though not in a formal manner.

“Each Tuesday, for half a day, I shadowed Dr. Geft. People asked me why I would do that once I’m already a licensed doctor. I told them, ‘If you had semichah, and had the opportunity to shadow Rav Elyashiv, wouldn’t you take it?’” Even after ten years of schooling, Dr. Grunfeld is convinced that “the majority of my knowledge in pediatrics is from Dr. Geft.”

This includes lessons in diagnostics and prescription, but a whole lot more. “Dr. Geft’s chashivus ha’adam is amazing,” Dr. Grunfeld shares. “In all the time I spent with him, I never heard him mention a negative thing about anyone. No matter how difficult a patient’s parent might be, he never says anything about it.”

Dr. Grunfeld shares Dr. Geft’s interpretation of the expression found in Chazal (Chulin, 32a) “Eizehu chacham, ha’roeh es hanolad.” Simply translated, it means, “Who is a wise man? He who foresees outcomes.”

“But Dr. Geft understands it differently,” says Dr. Grunfeld. “He says that the word ‘nolad’ can be translated literally: ‘the born.’ Who is a wise man? He who ‘sees’ newly born infants. He looks at them deeply and sees the wonders of creation and the potential to be realized in the years ahead.”

Indeed, when a parent brings a newborn baby into Dr. Geft’s office, he cradles the child and says, “what a beautiful person.”

Recently, Dr. Geft spoke at a sheva brachos of one of “his girls,” and he explained why this simchah held particularly sentimental meaning to him.

“Twenty-three years ago, when she was just a baby, she had developed a serious medical condition. It was a freezing winter night and I got a call from the hospital at 3:00 a.m. that the child wasn’t doing well. I got into my car and began driving to the hospital and I remember thinking to myself, ‘One day, this little girl will become a grown adult.’ And now, here I am, speaking at her sheva brachos.”

The profound level of respect Dr. Geft has for his patients likely explains his deep concern for them — the extent of which Dr. Grunfeld merited to witness firsthand many times. “Every evening, Dr. Geft takes home a list of the patients he’s concerned about and makes sure to call them to see how they’re doing.”

He then relates an amusing anecdote that happened when Dr. Geft was coaching him on maintaining proper work-life balance.

“Once, after hours, he was telling me how ‘after hours are after hours. You must take some time for yourself.’ Then the phone rang. Dr. Geft looked flustered for a moment, then stopped the conversation, and took the call. It was after hours but he couldn’t resist.

“If in 20 years from now, people say that I’m the next Dr. Geft, then I will know that I have succeeded, both in medicine and in ruchniyus,” says Dr. Grunfeld.

The respect for each patient might also explain how Dr. Geft remembers every patient by name and file number — although, in Dr. Grunfeld’s estimation, there must be some 3,000 of them.

Although Dr. Grunfeld has never heard a negative word about a patient from his mentor, there was one instance where Dr. Geft voiced frustration. “I get a call from a patient who has turned 18. He or she says, ‘Dr. Geft, can you transfer my medical file to my adult doctor?’

“For 18 years I gave my heart and soul to this patient. I appreciate it when I get a thank-you note. It’s hard to just send off the file and never see the patient again.”

Dr. Geft has also taught Dr. Grunfeld that a special level of respect must be afforded to mothers. “He once told me that when a mother says, ‘I feel that something is wrong,’ I should always take it seriously.” Dr. Geft had shared a frightening story to demonstrate this point. “He told me that a mother came in with a child and said, ‘Something’s wrong. I cannot describe what it is, but something is wrong.’ ” Dr. Geft checked the child thoroughly but found nothing. But the mother kept insisting that something wasn’t right and, suddenly, a flash went off in Dr. Geft’s mind.

“He told me that he checked the child’s height and it was in the 50th percentile. He checked his weight and it was in the 50th percentile. Then he checked the circumference of his head — it was in the 70th percentile. Why would the head be disproportionate to the rest of the body? He immediately ordered a CT scan.” Regrettably, the child had a brain tumor.


Family Affair

Dr. Geft’s respect for a mother’s intuition comes along with his approach to a patient’s parents in general. Much as Dr. Geft is a guide to children, he is a guide to parents as well. His philosophy is that treating a child requires taking the entire family into consideration and this, of course, means maintaining a working relationship with the parents. Dr. Geft is often honored to speak at various events and a topic of choice is parenting. He has a list of what he calls “Parenting Pearls” and, chief among these rules is “happiness.”

“I’m very into happiness,” Dr. Geft says. A child’s happiness, he posits, can’t be expected to exist on its own. “To have a happy child you need a happy parent,” he states. Happiness, Dr. Geft goes on to explain, is a prerequisite to all success. “If your child isn’t happy, he won’t learn, he won’t daven, he won’t succeed in school.”

Dr. Geft does his part in fostering his young patients’ happiness. “I commend children all the time. Every child gets a sticker at the end of a visit, and I tell them, ‘you did so well.’ ” If an appointment was particularly difficult, the child will likely receive a phone call later that evening from Dr. Geft, reiterating that “you did so well.”

Dr. Geft tells of a mother who once complained that her son would come home from school, head directly to his room, and slam the door shut. “I turned to the boy and asked, ‘Why do you do that?’

“‘When I come home,’ the boy answered, ‘the first thing my mother says to me is that she got a call from my teacher. And I don’t want to hear it. So I go straight to my room.’

“Parents must be the adult in the equation,” says Dr. Geft. “Never say, ‘You misbehaved and so I’ll punish you.’ That’s equating yourself with your child.” Rather, the way to discipline, says Dr. Geft, is by explaining the objective of proper behavior. “Gently express your disappointment, and then conclude — ‘don’t you understand? We want a peaceful home.’” Dr. Geft quotes a phrase from the pasuk in Tehillim (28:9) to describe this philosophy. “Ur’eim v’naseim — tend to them and raise them.” “Parents must raise their children up, rather than stoop down to the child’s level.”

Parents needs to be wary that they aren’t inadvertently negatively influencing their child, Dr. Geft warns.

“Anxious parents foster anxious children,” he says. He’s seen many anxiety-provoking moments but insists they can be handled deliberately. “I try to encourage parents to use judgment. Don’t panic when a child gets hurt. When I recommend sending a child to the hospital, I always do it in a calm voice. I reassure the child, ‘The doctors there care for you — they will help you.’ ”

Forty-three years is enough time to see medical trends come and go, only to be replaced with new ones which then follow a similar pattern. Dr. Geft sighs when addressing today’s most prevalent concerns. “The biggest thing we’ve noticed is the degree of mental health issues that children are suffering from,” he says. Of all the mental health disorders that have been making their way into his office, Dr. Geft names the one that tops the list. “Anxiety,” he states. “Anxiety has crept in.”

“Medicine used to be less complicated,” he says. “A patient came in, and I diagnosed and then treated him. Now, there’s an overlay of mental health concerns — anxiety being number one. And attention deficit disorders have skyrocketed. We have all these allied problems now, and each of them is a further stress.”

The mental health element poses a particular challenge to Dr. Geft in light of his prevailing philosophy in fostering children’s overall well-being. “Because I’m so into happiness,” he explains, “these issues all serve as impediments.” Parents, says Dr. Geft, play critical roles in this regard. “Parents must recognize that these issues are real, and — as I’ve said before — they must play the adult role in the equation, acknowledging that their child has certain deficits and working to guide them.”

Dr. Geft has noticed yet another trend over the years that he attributes to more of a cultural shift than a health decline. “There is a lack of discipline in the children,” he says. “Parents have to be able to say to their children ‘do it because we told you to do it.’ A child who can accept that is a disciplined child.”

The way Dr. Geft phrases it to parents is that they must “strike a balance between being a disciplinarian while still maintaining a happy household. And that’s an art.” Dr. Geft comments. “Parents must be authoritative without being fearsome. Discipline must always conclude with the so-called ‘arm-around-the-shoulder,’ explaining to the child that both you and he share the objective of striving toward a happy home.”


Making It Work

Dr. Geft runs an extremely tight ship, with each patient expected to show up precisely on time, which they do. “People have asked me why I have a waiting room,” he laughs. But in all seriousness, the exactness is what allows him to achieve a week’s worth of accomplishments in a single day. It also enables Dr. Geft to follow through with his policy to “never turn away a sick child.” Whether the child is a formal patient or not, if he needs to be treated, Dr. Geft will make sure he is.

But with such a demanding schedule, how does he have time for himself?

It’s not clear how the numbers work but, somehow, they do. “I cannot run myself silly,” says Dr. Geft. “I make sure to eat a proper breakfast, a proper lunch, and a proper supper. And I never neglect my family. I never want my children to say, ‘You were a good doctor but you weren’t there for us.’ ” He tries his best to be an excellent doctor but just as excellent a husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.

And he was an excellent son. “My dear parents,” is how Dr. Geft refers to his father and mother, Mr. Chaim and Mrs. Chanah Geft aleihem hashalom. Dr. Geft often speaks of the deep love and respect he has for his parents, and he openly attributes his accomplishments to their love and positive influence.

Our conversation comes to an end, and Dr. Geft leads me out of his office, through the empty waiting room, into the modest hallway with library-like quiet and a faint scent of rubbing alcohol. But something about it looks different now. Suddenly, there’s a sparkle — the reflection of a million diamonds — uncut upon arrival, brilliant upon departure.

The sprawling parking lot is empty now, but tomorrow it will be full — with “my boys” and “my girls” coming in with sore throats and maybe a can of Pepsi.

Dr. Geft will treat them — making sure to say “please” and “thank you” as he does.

He will be “roeh es hanolad,” acknowledging their bright potentials over present limitations.

And in 43 years from now, they’ll come to appreciate what Dr. Geft has seen all along.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 991)

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