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Edmonton couple covered in tumours want strangers to see past the bumps




Gail Appelgren has been denied access to public swimming pools and detained at the airport.

In grocery stores, she has been told not to touch the fruit.

Thousands of tumours cover her body. Strangers can be cruel.

« I’ve had people circle me at Costco, and pray over me in the middle of shopping, » Appelgren said in an interview Friday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM. « I’ve had people call me ‘wart face.' »

« A lady, while I was waiting for coffee the other day, said, ‘When you die and see God, you won’t have those bumps and you’ll be beautiful.’

« And I said, ‘Well, I think I’m beautiful now’ and she shook her and said, ‘No, no you’re not.' »

Gail Appelgren undergoes multiple procedures a year to manage her most painful tumours. (Gail Appelgren)

Appelgren and her husband Tim Golumbia both have neurofibromatosis (NF), a rare genetic disorder which attacks the nervous system and causes tiny tumours to develop all over the body.

Only one in 3,000 people will inherit the progressive condition.

The Edmonton couple are sharing their stories with the hope of reducing the stigma around their condition.

« We are not contagious, » said Appelgren, a retired social worker. « Please do not be afraid of us, even though we look like we have something scary.

« I have appreciation for people’s reactions, that they come from a place of fear, and that’s part of the reason we want to get out there and share this. » 

‘You’re not alone’ 

Many people with NF avoid leaving their homes out of fear of being ridiculed by strangers, Appelgren said.

She wishes people would ask about her condition instead of recoiling.

« It creates a lot of anxiety and depression in people because of the reaction and the fear of being stared at or being called names.

« I want to let people who have NF, you’re not alone. »  

Gail Appelgren as a young girl. She began showing symptoms as an infant but wouldn’t receive a diagnosis until she was 14. (Gail Appelgren)

Appelgren, 57, began showing symptoms as an infant. At 14, as a large tumour on her chest grew to an alarming size and the bumps on her skin began to multiply, her condition was finally diagnosed by her family doctor.

« When I was born, I had a tumour or a mass on the left side of my chest and it grew as I grew, » Appelgren said.

« The doctors at the time didn’t know what I had, they just kept saying, it’s a birthmark, it’s a birthmark. »

Despite numerous surgeries to remove the mass, it kept growing back. Appelgren said each operation was risky and she nearly died from blood loss during one procedure.

She now has hundreds of thousands of tumours. They cover every inch of her skin.

Tumours caused by neurofibromatosis are usually benign but related medical complications can be painful and life-threatening.

There is no cure and medical treatment is minimal. 

Appelgren continues to have multiple procedures each year to manage her pain. The mass on her chest eventually became so large, she had to have some of her ribs removed.

« I’ve probably had about 40 surgeries over the years to have the tumours removed, » she said. 

Gail Appelgren at 14, when she was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis. (Gail Appelgren)

Appelgren and Golumbia got together thanks to a little luck and a matchmaking colleague.

In 2010, Golumbia, a social worker with the Alberta government, was working in Nanaimo, B.C., when he made a call to the children’s services office in Edmonton about a case.

When he mentioned that he used his bumps as an icebreaker during his work with young children, the woman on the other line was intrigued.

The woman had worked with Appelgren for years and was always trying to set her up on dates.

After meeting through a matchmaking colleague, Appelgren and Golumbia were married in 2014. (Gail Appelgren)

Soon, the would-be matchmaker was barging into Appelgren’s office, with her thumbs up.

« She came running, » Appelgren recalled. « She had Tim’s name written down on a piece of paper with the word neurofibromatosis.

« She said, ‘I know I tried to fix you up one other time and it didn’t work out, but I have a good feeling.

‘He’s about your age, he cheers for those Roughriders like you do, he’s from Saskatchewan, I think this is going to work out.' »

Appelgren and Golumbia spoke over the phone the following day.  A month later, Golumbia sent her flowers and they arranged to meet.

« We talked every night, for an hour every night, and we found out that we had so much in common, » Appelgren said.

« We worked at some of the same places at different times, went to the same school in Saskatoon, drove the same vehicles, had Coca-Cola collections. » 

They were married in August 2014. Golumbia proposed by serenading her with Annie’s Song, an ode to their shared love for songwriter John Denver. 

The people who know me don’t see the bumps anymore.– Gail Appelgren

Golumbia, 55, said his wife has never let her condition affect her confidence. She doesn’t cover up and refuses to hide away.

It’s one of the things about her he loves best.

« She lies on the beach with a bathing suit on and doesn’t care what people say, look or do, » Golumbia said.  

« That’s just who she is. »

Appelgren credits her husband and friends for allowing her to see past her bumps.

She hopes, with a little understanding, others will be able to do the same.

« The people who know me don’t see the bumps anymore, » she said. « They just see Gail, which is what I see. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see them. »  


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise




Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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