In the darkest days of Toronto’s fight against SARS, when people were dying of a then unknown illness and thousands more were quarantined prisoners in their homes, a small, mighty woman took control of the worst public health disaster to grip this city in years.
Dr. Sheela Basrur, a whisp of a person standing barely five-feet-tall, was the voice of calm and reason as people fell sick from a never-seen before flu-like illness, prompting the World Health Organization to slap a devastating travel advisory against Toronto.
“None of us knew the situation, everybody was maxed out,” said Liz Jansen, Dr. Basrur’s colleague and friend from Toronto Public Health. “But she was able to talk about it, explain it and go out and express it in a way people could hear.”
Dr. Basrur, the first female woman of colour to be named both Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer of Health in 1997 and then Ontario’s in 2004, died yesterday after losing her own health struggle with a rare form of cancer. She was 51.
“Her way of communicating connected with people,” said Jansen. “There was something about how she did that. I remember going to her when things were very difficult and she’d sit on the edge of her seat, upright and she’d listen.
“People here loved her.”
It was common to see Basrur working late in her office at Toronto public health on Victoria Street during those busy days following the amalgamation of all the public health units. She was a role model to many — a busy, single, working mom. Her daughter Simone spent hours playing at her side, waiting to go home or out to a movie.
“Many a times Simone had to sit in her mom’s office. I’d take her out for lunch or bring her a treat,” said Jansen. “Simone was very patient. She showed her mother’s stamina.”
That stamina, in a woman often described as a “diminutive dynamo,” helped her recently as she put a brave face on during treatment for leiomyosarcoma (LMS).