SARS revisited

The title Spring of Fear suitably understates the mindset among many, particularly in Toronto, as SARS crept into our collective consciousness in the early months of 2003.

I only alluded to SARS here, in my recounting of the April, 2003 mishap which landed me in hospital for five weeks, and today I find myself revisiting that horrible enough time in my life – but from the perspective of SARS.

Emergency responders to the 9-1-1 call, placed by the cabbie who knocked me down, arrived very quickly and before they had made their way to my side – as I lay on the pavement – they suited up with masks, the usual gloves and, if I am not mistaken, disposable gowns over their already bulky uniforms. (I wouldn’t bet the farm on the gowns, although they were certainly the norm everywhere over the coming days in the health-care system.)

Later that day, April 30, with me well medicated at St. Michael’s Hospital awaiting orthopedic surgery, it was announced that two more SARS deaths had occurred locally – two men, 72 years old male and 39, respectively, the 39-year old cited as the youngest person to die of SARS in Canada. Just to underline how top-of-mind SARS was then, on this same day the World Health organization lifted its travel advisory against Toronto and health experts from around the world opened a conference on SARS at the downtown convention centre.

I was already a little extra sensitive with HIV underlying my acute physical injuries, even though universal precautions practiced had long since begun to lift the stigma. What I soon found out, and yet did not fully appreciate on the receiving end of hospital care, was the fear and frustration at the lack of reassuring information among health-care professionals.

Hard-working, yet frightened, nurses – many of whom worked two, even three, part-time nursing jobs at different hospitals – would linger at the side of beds whose patients had rented televisions (and were able to keep them when rental contractors, and all visitors, were banned.) Their favoured source of information was not their employers, or infectious disease specialists, but the media. Frankly, hospitals by then were acting in tandem based on directives from municipal and provincial authorities. The once- or twice-daily news conferences by various health and/or government figures became must-see TV. There was the calm, if nervous, voice of Dr. Sheela Basrur, Medical Officer of Health – tragically now battling cancer these few years later – and the shrill, predictably over-the-top, rants of Mayor Mel “Who is WHO?” Lastman. While some of his outrage might prove to have been justified, those of us in hospital – both as patients and employees – felt that Lastman was putting Toronto’s tourism business disproportionately ahead of the health situation.

New arrivals to hospital were isolated until they could be judged to be SARS-free. When I was moved from St. Michael’s Hospital Trauma Unit to Bridgepoint Health’s rehabilitation facilities, during what is now referred to as SARS II, there were on-again, off-again restrictions of visitors. Deliveries of flowers or gifts of toiletries were left at the hospital’s front doors. From a selfish point of view this forced isolation is one of the saddest memories of that time.

We can only hope that – with today’s report ominously saying that hospitals are as dangerous a place to work as mines and factories (yet Ontario hospital workers don’t enjoy the same level of workplace protection as workers in those other sectors) – that things will have to change.

SARS was the canary in the coal-mine of larger, worldwide pandemics. The canary, and forty-four human beings (in Toronto alone), didn’t make it out alive.


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