SARS Victims Tell Their Stories

THE SARS OUTBREAK has swept many people into its vortex of tragedy, fear and confusion. The DISEASE suddenly changed their lives in ways they couldn't have imagined.

SARS Victims Tell Their Stories

THE SARS OUTBREAK has swept many people into its vortex of tragedy, fear and confusion. The DISEASE suddenly changed their lives in ways they couldn't have imagined. Some of their voices, compiled by Associate Editor Susan McClelland:

Patricia Tamlin, 42, an intensive care nurse at Toronto's Scarborough Grace Hospital, epicentre of the city's SARS outbreak, developed a high fever during the night shift on March 19. Four days later, she was hospitalized with SARS symptoms, including severe fatigue and shortness of breath. Now resting at home, Tamlin is expected to make a full recovery.

For a week, I was so weak I struggled to make it to the bathroom. I had to hang onto things because I was in a room by myself with the door closed, and if I fell, no one would see me. I couldn't shower; I was just too worried that I might fall. I joke now that my hair had a week-long oil treatment.

I knew I wasn't going to die. I'm young, in great health, I've never smoked and I never get sick, so I was optimistic throughout the ordeal. The only tense moment was when my 15-year-old daughter, Nicole, who was under quarantine at our house with her older sister and my husband, came down with a fever and cough. When I heard about Nicole, I cried. We could talk on the telephone, but I felt so helpless. I couldn't be with her. I panicked. She turned out to be fine but it was very frightening.

The people I work with at the Grace are my second family. We really respect the hospital, but we don't tell people where we work the way we did in the past because there is such a negative feeling about the Grace. Our hospital will have to do a lot of PR work to change public perception.

On April 4, four-year-old Angelica and her family were quarantined at home when it was suspected they had come into contact with someone having SARS. Days later, Angelica came down with a fever and cough. She spent the next nine days in isolation at Toronto's Sick Children's Hospital, separated from her anxious parents, Anna and Alain (who asked that their last name not be published to preserve their privacy). In the end, it turned out Angelica didn't have SARS.

Anna: The separation wasn't as bad as the knowledge that I was just helpless to do anything. I was allowed to stay with Angelica the first night, even though I was under quarantine. The next day, the doctor said I had to go home. Angelica didn't make it more traumatic than it already was by clinging to me. She just understood. I was allowed to wait and let her fall asleep before leaving. As bad as it was for us at home, Angelica made it a lot easier. She was really strong and brave, even when they were giving her tests. She would boast, "I didn't even cry. I didn't say ow." The second day was the only day that was bad. She really missed us that day and she was really crying.

Alain: Angelica called us first thing every morning to make sure we were at the other end of the phone, and we would leave the phone on all day until she fell asleep. We sent her videos, balloons and little gift baskets. Angelica was always aware of when she was coming home. She'd say to us on the phone, four more sleeps, three more sleeps.

As a leading member of the Filipino Catholic congregation Bukas-Loob sa Diyos (Open in Spirit to God), Tess Malolos has found herself the centre of unwelcome attention. From April 12 to 23, the majority of the group, 370 adults and children, went into quarantine after a member contracted SARS through his father, who'd been a patient at Scarborough Grace. Now, the Filipinos feel stigmatized and victimized by false accusations.

When my husband, two teenage sons and I began the quarantine, we sat down and went through what public health required of us. We each chose our own cutlery, plates and towels. I gave everyone a brand new tube of toothpaste, a thermometer and a mask. The hardest part was explaining to our sons why this was happening. We assured them that this was a precautionary measure. Every night we would get together with our masks on and pray. Neighbours dropped groceries off at our door. A family friend left us Easter communion.

There have been some real inaccuracies in the reporting about our community. Take the BLD member who felt like he had the flu [he was later hospitalized with SARS] but still got into a van and went to Montreal on a business trip. What is not being told is that, before he went on that trip, he twice went to the doctor, who said he was fine. Another issue is Baycrest [Toronto media reported that two members of Bukas-Loob showed up to work at the Baycrest Centre, a long-term care residence, breaking quarantine]. One radio host asked callers, do you think these people - meaning us - are enemies of the state? It shook me to my core. It turned out the people weren't even related to BLD, they weren't under quarantine, but no one printed that.

BLD was very active in the community. Many of our members volunteer with the sick and elderly and at programs for the homeless. Who knows what impact SARS will have on our future or the future of this work?

SARS claimed the lives of two of 10-year-old Jenna Pollack's closest friends: her grandparents, Joseph and Rose Pollack. Joseph, 76, contracted the virus when he spent a night in the Scarborough Grace emergency department, lying near a man who was dying from SARS. Joseph died on March 21 and Rose, 73, on April 12. Some of Jenna's thoughts as she wrote them down on the day of her grandmother's death:

I never would have suspected that my family, out of the millions of families scattered all over, would get this disease. This moment has been hard for everyone, but for me it's the hardest because I'm the youngest. I have no clue what is going on. I shiver when I think that death actually came and did its job by breaking up a family and taking those special people to heaven.

As the Pollack family tried to be strong they just couldn't. They had to let it all out. No one had the strength to do the things they used to do. My dad couldn't tickle me the way he used to, my mom couldn't speak without letting a teardrop fall from her eye. I couldn't play at school the way I used to because I just couldn't stop thinking about it. Whenever I look at a picture with my two wonderful grandparents, I smile and I cry at the same time, and when I do that I know they are right beside me doing the same.

It was very hard because my grandparents were the best people ever. They treated everyone with the respect they deserved, especially me. Overcoming this hard time was, well, hard. I mean, you have to get over that someone has died and you will only get to see them along the road of life - otherwise known as when you die. When I think about this, I don't say that they're dead, I say they are just gone for a while.

Maclean's May 5, 2003