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Memories of SARS 2003

Written by Christine Ransome March, 2020


"The SARS virus outbreak in 2003 that infected 375 people in Toronto, killing 44, left behind a widespread physical reminder of that dark time. While they have become often out of order and otherwise neglected in recent years, dispensers for hand sanitizer are still found in most public buildings at their entrances and dotted along their hallways." 

                                                                                                                  Written by Canadian correspondent Ian Austen.           Jan. 31, 2020


I lived in Toronto then.


My three children were aged 13 to 17 years of age. I was alone and scared.

My husband had already made the move to Barbados to work with the bank as Head of Offshore Financing. We had made the cavalier decision that I would stay at home, sell our house and allow our two eldest sons to finish high school in Toronto and move onto university in Canada.


In words, it all made so much sense, but life disputed all of our decisions.


It started slowly. But how fast it escalated.


No movie theatres.





Implement Social Distancing


And how do you do all of that as a mother of three young teenagers biting at the bit to party in whatever shape or form they could.

Life was frightening.

The Toronto Star would land on my doorstep every morning.

I opened my door with trepidation each morning, so afraid of the words which were about to pounce at me.



Spread of infection.

Slamming the door closed was not an option. I would pick up the paper, reluctantly read it over a much needed cup of coffee and send my children off to school.


In perhaps the same stage of fear as present mothers send children to school in the aftermath of yet another school shooting.

That was not our worry then, but SARS was.

It was a Toronto thing, and we were Toronto.

It totally changed our world.


I was a teacher at the time, in a private school nearby.

Teaching kindergarten which I loved, but traumatized with my professional and personal need to keep my beautiful little students safe.

How do I do that?


First meeting of staff with Health Ontario, where we we are asked to implement and surreal guidelines.

Children must wash their hands whenever necessary.

And how do they do that well?

Simple answer was given.

Sing Happy Birthday.

Not just once, but twice, and then you know your hands are clean.


Make it fun and happy. Happy Birthday To You can be sung to anyone you want.

It can be sung to yourself.

Your mum and dad.

Your best friend.

Your puppy.

Just sing it twice and your hands will be clean.


And so the washrooms were filled with a chorus of beautiful little voices singing this magical song. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you.

And we did it.


We Beat SARS


We did it. Every contribution helped.

Every change in lifestyle, small or large, helped us do it.

Every age, young or old, helped us do it.

Every Happy Birthday sung, helped us do it.

Every single effort played such a part in this role of suppressing this terrible virus, SARS

And we can and will all do it all over again with CORONAVIRUS.


I left Toronto shortly after the SARS epidemic in Toronto when my children were all placed in places they should be.

I was scared and traumatized by all that had passed before me.

I truly didn't want to move, but Barbados was waiting for me.


I was leaving my country, my family, my safety, to move once again to a whole new world.

But I did it.


I sold my home and moved to Barbados to start another life.

I needed to be with my husband who was working there and rebuilding our life once again.


I moved my young daughter with me and tried to rebuild a whole new world.

I wanted to contribute some way to life there.

But life was so different there. I was constantly told how lucky I was to be living in Barbados, but life was different. So different from Toronto.

I had left all my family and friends behind and had dragged my daughter down to a whole different world in the Caribbean, in order that I still had something to hold on to.


I offered to volunteer at the hospital.

Being a teacher, I thought I could contribute someway to enhancing the life of children in the hospital.


When I lived in Ottawa, many years ago, I volunteered at the Hospital there, working on the Children's Cancer Unit. We did arts and crafts, we read stories and we talked.

And we cleansed.

I would change street clothing into hospital clothing. All was sanitized. It was all perfectly clear and normal. All as it should be.


But Barbados hit me with a bang.

I so needed to belong and contribute.

Volunteering in the hospital would help to assimilate me into local community as well as the Canadian Women's Group which was a strong presence on the island.

I needed to be strong and do this.

But I so questioned my motives.


My first day.

Very surreal in a Third World Country hospital.

No change of clothes.

No sanitizers.

Just hot. Very hot.

Children crying.

Shortage of staff.



I arrived in the staff room...

Secured a locker, beside which there was another locker marked SARS UNIT.

One tiny cupboard allocated to the onset of SARS.

My heart sank.


Coming from Toronto and what I had experienced, I knew that this would never work.

One little cupboard of supplies would never conquer SARS on this beautiful island.


I walked through the children's ward.

It was hot. Babies were crying. Cribs were wet and often dirty.

The stench of urine in the air overcame me. Fans were blowing, but not enough.

And the flies...too many flies.

I stopped off on my tour at a few cribs. I attempted to cuddle some little ones, but discouraged from doing so, due to sanitation reasons.

And why?

My personal cleanliness far succeeded what I had around me, and I knew that these babies really needed to be cuddled.



I left my volunteer position.

It totally grieved me to do so, but the thought of bringing infection back to my family, grieved me even more.

I struggled for so long leaving my volunteer duties behind, but worked hard at compensating in many other ways.


My husband and I worked hard for many years, sponsoring a golf tournament to raise money for the children of Barbados.

Canada's Birthday, July 1st, was the highlight of our year.

Our beautiful golf course was embraced with the love of Canada. It was a blanket of red and white.

Flags. Clothing . Decorated golf carts. It was all about Canada and raising money for these wonderful children. And we raised so much money.


So, I know we did our bit. We did as much as we could.


And now I worry.


I have since left Barbados and returned to Canada, but I feel so sorry about how the CORONAVIRUS will affect this beautiful island and the people who live there.


When SARS hit Toronto, we were not prepared. As big a city as we were, and so medically educated in many, many ways, SARS blindsided us.


But we all got through it and survived.


Yes, terrible heartaches had to be endured. I'm so grateful that my family was not one of them, but other families were.



CORONAVIRUS will take many families with it. It already has, and we know it will take many more.

The newspaper on the doormat has been replaced by the news update on the internet, but news is news in no matter what form it takes.

The headlines will get better.

Our world will eventually return to normal.

And we will all reload, renew our energy and prepare ourselves for the next challenge which will no doubt come at as further down the road, but they will be conquered.


Let's always remember the good times.

Here's to our beautiful families.

And here's to their memories.

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