Dr. Sheela Basrur
Five years ago, my husband and I were visiting friends in the beautiful state of Georgia. After a busy day of sight-seeing and chasing children around, we collapsed in front of the television, to catch the news before hitting the hay.
Suddenly, a story hit the air waves that immediately caught our attention. The American CDC was reporting about a mysterious flu-like illness in China, that was spreading rapidly and inexplicably-- resistant to any and all treatment, and killing its victims.
When things like this happen, half-way around the world, one is concerned, certainly. A flicker of worry leaps up in one's heart, but it usually extinguishes fairly quickly. Surely, in this day and age of extraordinary medical science, this sort of thing could NEVER happen HERE.
Well, to put it simply, it did.
SARS happened. Right here. Right here, in my little community. In my neighbourhood. In my own "backyard".
Within days of returning home from our vacation, we got word that the very first cases of this mysterious illness had begun cropping up in our local hospitals. The first patients died. And then, the reports came that the medical professionals who had tirelessly cared for these patients were sick, themselves.
One of these medical professionals was the father of one of my eldest daughter's best friends. He, and all other people reporting symptoms of the disease were immediately put into (remarkably quickly and efficiently created) isolation wards. Their families were quarantined in their homes. Indeed, anyone having association with people who were ill, were quarantined. Long lists of safety instructions were published in newspapers, on our local health unit's website, and talked about on radio and television. All hospitals and medical buildings were on "high alert". They became places one only ventured to for emergencies so dire, the risk you ran by simply being there was deemed to be less than the benefit you would receive.
Medical staff continued working, under the most difficult conditions imaginable. Putting their own health, and the health of their families at terrible risk. The stress they were under was unfathomable. Some still suffer post-traumatic stress... others had breakdowns, and eventually had to leave their jobs. But the majority soldiered on. Selflessly. They cared for us, and we will be forever in their debt.
It was a truly terrifying time. Indeed, I don't believe I have ever been so afraid in all my life.
We were a community, polarized and petrified. Worried sick for those of our friends who were ill, and at risk. Scared to leave our homes, and move about in "normal" society, for fear of what super-bugs we might contract-- at the time, we had no idea how on earth the illness was spreading.
Thank God for Dr. Sheela Basrur.
Dr. Basrur was the calming force, our guiding light, and our voice-of-reason during those long, dark days. She was our Chief Medical Officer of Health, and it was she who explained our situation-- no only to us, but to the rest of the world-- in a way that we could understand. Her serene composure, and her wise counsel saw us through that dark, dark time. She guided us through the process of "Carrying On", as normally and as safely as possible.
After long days and endless nights of meetings with other medical experts, Dr Basrur would make appearances in front of the media, who were desperate for any and all information. Her tiny, five-foot frame perched behind a microphone, Dr Basrur would patiently explain the day's events and findings... And then, she would look out at us all, and ask, "Does anyone have any questions?"
Oh, we had 'em, all right. And she answered every, single one of them, to the very best of her ability. Day, after day, after day.
She saw us through. And in the end, we "won" the battle against SARS. Because Dr. Basrur, her superb team of experts, and our medical professionals, were on top of things. She never lost her cool. Never wavered. Together, they got the job done.
Steering us through the SARS crisis was far from the only thing Dr. Basrur achieved during her distinguished career in public health. She was not only Toronto's Chief Medical Officer of Health, but became the first Chief Medical Officer of Health to be appointed by our province's Legislative Assembly. She also served as Assistant Deputy Minister for Public Health for the province of Ontario. In 2001, she was instrumental in beginning a program called "DineSafe", a new restaurant inspection system for the City of Toronto. It was she who also spear-headed the Smoke-Free Ontario legislation, which passed in 2006. She did pioneering work on the control of the use of pesticides, which has led to new bylaws being put in place. She targeted the issue of childhood obesity with her ground-breaking report, which raised awareness and set off alarm-bells from coast-to-coast.
She was also a remarkable single mother of an equally remarkable daughter. Which was undoubtedly her greatest success of all.
Dr Basrur discovered that she had Leiomyosarcoma, a rare vascular cancer, several years ago. And it eventually forced her to reluctantly step down from her job, fighting for OUR health, to focus on fighting for her own. We here in Ontario certainly never forgot her, though, even though she was no longer on our television screens and in our printed media on a daily basis. Rather, we would hear about the public appearances she continued to make, and of updates about the progress of her treatment. Once again, she fought tirelessly. In December, 2006, she received a standing ovation at Queen's Park when she arrived to hear the announcement of a new Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion. She was the recipient of the Amethyst Award, the highest award granted to a member of the Ontario Public Service. Only weeks ago, she was awarded the Order of Ontario, and an entire province cheered.
Dr. Basrur lost her fight against cancer yesterday, in Kitchener, Ontario. She was 51.
And at the news of her passing, I can think of no finer tribute to this, one of our most dedicated Public Servants than to say simply:
Thank you, Dr. Basrur. Thank you. You took such good care of us all.