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Alexandra (Alex) Radkewycz has always known the power of a good story.
Long before she joined the Ontario Cancer Institute/Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) at the Jarvis St. site in 1995 and returned to UHN to stay in 2000, Alex recognized that telling tales was not just a way to inform and entertain. She knew well-told stories also had the power to influence and, most importantly, affect positive change.
It's that deep understanding she's used with the Public Affairs & Communications (PAC) team for nearly 25 years to tell the stories of UHN patients, staff, research, discovery and education, both by producing them for the organization's platforms and working with external media to get the word out.
Whether a world-first medical procedure, complex scientific research, staff profile or spotlighting interdisciplinary collaboration, Alex has set the example for PAC teammates with her enthusiasm, sense of humour, attention to detail and ability to make a story relevant to a broad audience.
"Amazing things happen here every day," says Alex, a Senior Public Affairs Advisor at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, who retires May 31. "In the flurry of everyday activity, we can lose sight of how special the people are who come here for care, or for work, and how much they really do matter.
"I've always seen our job as a PAC team to offer a reminder of that through the stories we tell."
Holder of a BAA in journalism from Ryerson University and MSc in community health from the University of Toronto, Alex spent about a decade in the mainstream media. She researched, produced and wrote stories on news and current affairs for print publications and broadcast programs, including The Globe and Mail, London Free Press, science magazines and CBC Television. She was a member of CBC "Marketplace," which won the 1994 Gemini Award for best information series.
It's easy to forget how different the landscape was when Alex joined PMH in 1995. Science and health journalism were niche pursuits. Few people had access to the internet. Social media didn't exist. And, in most circles, discussing medical research was more likely to clear a room than garner interest.
But it was in the back alleys – quite literally – around the old PMH where Alex honed her passion for medical research, joining some of the hospital's scientists outside on breaks to discuss their work.
Following a two-year stint at the Canadian Cancer Society/National Cancer Institute of Canada, Alex returned to UHN in 2000, serving as the PAC site lead at Toronto General Hospital (TGH), before moving back to the Princess Margaret in 2019.
"Alex has always been a dedicated and creative member of the team, freely offering her counsel and advice to all of us," says Gillian Howard, UHN's Vice President, Public Affairs & Communications. "She has also played an important part in the careers of many of her colleagues – particularly the interns who have joined us each summer.
"She has worked across UHN, always offering kindness and support to patients, families and her colleagues. We will miss her but know that her decision to retire is something that she's been looking forward to and richly deserves."
Though there have been many stories over the years, a couple in particular stand out for Alex.
Hélène Campbell was 21 when she received a double-lung transplant at TGH in 2012. The Ottawa woman built a large following via personal blog and by engaging celebrities, including singer Justin Bieber and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, through social media to raise awareness of organ donation and raise funds to help those awaiting transplant. She eventually appeared in-person on Ellen's show.
Registrations for organ donations increased dramatically in the aftermath of the young woman's story going public, something the Trillium Gift of Life Network attributed to the "Hélène Campbell effect."
"Alex and the PAC team have always taken extra time to organize events and dealt with the media so thoughtfully, thoroughly, and with style," says Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, Surgeon-in-Chief at UHN and Director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program. "Alex would show up anytime of the day with a latte from Starbucks to get all the details of a good story.
"They have helped to elevate the public profile of UHN nationally and internationally, making us all proud of Canadian medical and scientific achievements."
Another story Alex vividly remembers was more low-key, but continues to have profound impact. Breast cancer patient and activist Sharon Solomon was the original creator of the Magic Castle, a play place for children of cancer patients at the Princess Margaret.
One day, while waiting for treatment, Sharon realized that her two daughters were due home from elementary school, and that she would not be able to make it in time to pick them up. A friend was able to help out in the nick of time, but Sharon resolved that no patients should ever feel the same panic and dread she did in not knowing who would care for their children while they were in treatment.
The idea for the Magic Castle was born that day. Sharon was able to tour HRH The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, through the Magic Castle when Princess Margaret came to visit the hospital on University Avenue in 1996.
"I am so grateful that I had a window seat at some of the most remarkable medical achievements in Canada," says Alex. "Having the PAC team as a creative incubator for unique ideas on how to showcase those achievements to the world has been so invigorating and has helped us tell the UHN story far and wide.
"The UHN team – past and present – will always have a special place in my heart."