The last time Mike Sullivan saw his friends Elana Fric-Shamji and Mohammed Shamji for dinner, the Toronto couple — both respected physicians — filled the room with laughter and finished each other’s sentences.
It was their typical loving, supportive persona, both in life and online.
Just last week, Shamji, a 40-year-old Toronto neurosurgeon, tweeted support for his wife’s work with the Ontario Medical Association (OMA).
And in 2014, he posted about his 11 years of “married bliss” to 40-year-old Fric-Shamji, a family doctor in the city’s Scarborough neighbourhood and mother to the couple’s three children.
“She is the moon of my life,” he wrote, quoting the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones.
“And you are my Sun and Stars,” Fric-Shamji tweeted back.
But the couple’s public persona is at odds with a tragedy that’s shaken Ontario’s medical community.
On Thursday, Fric-Shamji’s body was found in a suitcase near an underpass in Vaughan, Ont. She died from strangulation and blunt-force trauma.
Her husband is charged with first-degree murder in her death and remains in custody following a Saturday court appearance.
“A special person is murdered, three kids will never be the same, two families are devastated and a world-renowned [neurosurgeon] who did very specialized work in the area of neuropathic/chronic pain is also lost to thousands of future patients,” Sullivan said.
“How could this all happen?”
‘Looking forward to a new beginning’
Friends, colleagues and patients are now struggling to comprehend the circumstances surrounding Fric-Shamji’s death.
Colleagues say she was a vibrant, dedicated family physician at the Scarborough Hospital who juggled roles as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and a member of the health policy committee at the OMA.
She was “adored by patients” and was an avid runner who tried to be the “perfect wife and mother,” Toronto physician Dr. Allyson Koffman said.
Fric-Shamji met her future husband during her medical school days at the University of Ottawa while he was there for a neurosurgery residency, said Sullivan, who has known Shamji since Grade 6 and called him “incredibly smart” and a ”terrific guy.”
Shamji’s career as a neurosurgeon brought him accolades and television appearances. An assistant professor of surgery at the University of Toronto and a staff neurosurgeon with Toronto Western Hospital, he holds a master of science degree from Yale University and attended medical school at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
From a professional perspective, Shamji and Fric-Shamji were a medical power couple.
But at a dinner with OMA colleagues in Toronto on Nov. 25, Fric-Shamji confided that she’d filed divorce papers.
Two physicians who spoke to CBC News, Dr. Nadia Alam, a family physician and anaesthetist in Georgetown, Ont., and Dr. Darren Cargill, a palliative care physician in Windsor, Ont., both confirmed hearing Fric-Shamji speak about her impending divorce to the man she married back in 2004.
“She said she was looking forward to a new beginning,” Cargill recalled.
Police previously said the couple were having marital problems and believe Fric-Shamji’s death was “a deliberate act.”
‘I feel hopeless now,’ says patient
Shamji’s patients are now trying to reconcile the gravity of the neurosurgeon’s alleged crime with how he was seen as a medical “hero” and sought-after specialist in spinal surgery.
Aylar Mousavi, a patient of Shamji’s who appeared in court for his Saturday morning appearance, was “traumatized” and “shocked” upon hearing the allegations against him.
Mousavi was supposed to book surgery with Shamji to treat a Chiari malformation, a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal and can cause pain, dizziness or weakness.
“I feel hopeless now,” Mousavi said.
On a “personal story of gratitude” found on the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation’s website — which has since been removed since CBC News first located the post — Toronto resident Joe Grossman praised Shamji’s care.
In 2014, Grossman suddenly developed excruciating lower-back pain. He spent the next 10 days in such severe pain that he couldn’t stand, and was eventually diagnosed with a spinal epidural abscess caused by a staphylococcus aureus infection.
“On May 7, 2014, the day after my 47th, birthday, Dr. Shamji did a multi-level laminectomy, removed the abscess and saved my life,” Grossman wrote.
When contacted by CBC Toronto, Grossman said he is in “utter shock and disbelief” regarding the allegations against Shamji.
“This doesn’t make sense on any level,” he said in an email. “This is a man to whom I literally owe my life and a man who I truly believed was a hero.”
The hospital where Shamji works is part of Toronto’s University Health Network. In a statement, UHN vice-president, public affairs and communications Gillian Howard said the organization is “shocked and saddened by the news but our concern is our patients going forward.”
A ‘Hollywood couple’
Amid ongoing media coverage surrounding the case — and speculation among friends and colleagues about what was really going on between Fric-Shamji and her husband before her death — Sullivan and his wife keep looking back to that last dinner with their friends.
During their evening out in Toronto’s Distillery District 10 months ago, Sullivan said nothing seemed amiss between the seemingly happy “Hollywood couple.”
“I joked many times with my wife saying I wished we had the kind of marriage they had, the kind of relationship they had, the way that they looked at each other,” Sullivan said.
Shamji’s next court appearance is on Dec. 20.