Registed Nurses' Association of Ontario

Key players respond to questions about RNAO’s role during SARS, and how transformative the outbreak was for Ontario

Key players respond to questions about RNAO’s role during SARS, and how transformative the outbreak was for Ontario

Issue: 

The 2003 Ontario SARS outbreak was a difficult time for the health-care system. Below, you’ll find a collection of quotes from five Toronto RNs who describe the role of their professional association during the health emergency, and reflect, 10 years later, on how the epidemic changed them – both personally and professionally.

Adeline Falk-Rafael, RNAO Past-President (2002-2004), Professor, York University

What was RNAO’s role during SARS?
RNAO played a number of important roles during SARS. First, it added a nursing perspective to the policy tables which had been exclusively biomedical. It became a nexus where nurses working in different sectors could pool their expertise to formulate the best possible strategies to respond to the outbreak, and prevent further spread. It provided support for nurses and their families who contracted SARS, and drew public and political attention to the risks of silencing and marginalizing nurses. RNAO’s important role was vital during the outbreak, but also in the aftermath. The association strongly advocated for, and participated in, inquiries provincially (Campbell Commission) and federally (National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health).

How did SARS change you?
The SARS outbreak exemplified for me long-standing problems in health care. It brought to the forefront the privilege of a biomedical perspective and the privilege of male perspectives and values that lead too frequently to the marginalization of nurses, and the invisibility of our significant contribution to health and healing. SARS provided an opportunity to confront these issues. Increased media coverage certainly brought nursing to the attention of the public and government. Some positive changes have come from this tragedy, including the strengthening of our public-health infrastructure at the national level. However, the extent to which the past decade has seen substantive progress in addressing the underlying problems remains unclear.

Rhonda Seidman-Carlson, RNAO President, Vice-President of Interprofessional Practice and Chief Nursing Executive at The Scarborough Hospital

What was RNAO’s role during SARS?
RNAO was critical in communicating risks to patients, families and staff (when it comes to) becoming infected with SARS and also the risk of not listening to nurses when they pick up on something that is not right although not yet clearly identified.

How did SARS change you?
SARS made me realize that each time a person enters a hospital emergency department, a physician’s office, family health team or nurse practitioner-led clinic, a new virus could be lurking. We need to be vigilant, and listen to what our nurses tell us. They have their fingers on the pulse of what is truly unfolding.

Holly Quinn, Chief Nursing Officer, Bayshore Home Health

What was RNAO’s role during SARS?
RNAO was a source of personal and professional support through the provision of information and evidence that informed my role as a nurse and a health administrator.

How did SARS change you?
The outbreak increased my surveillance of international infectious disease events as part of my environmental scanning for occurrences that may impact my area of health-care responsibility.

Marnie Kraguljac, Associate Director, Tuberculosis Program, Toronto Public Health

What was RNAO’s role during SARS?
One of RNAO’s main roles was to listen to its members and advocate…in order to ensure optimal client care, and that all possible measures were in place to ensure the health and safety of front-line care providers.

How did SARS change you?
SARS gave me first-hand experience with managing and leading staff in a time of great uncertainty. It gave me a new appreciation for the importance of: science in guiding public health practise and decisions; and effective communication, from the front line right up to the medical officer of health, the public/media, and beyond to the provincial and federal governments.

Carolyn Edgar, Bargaining Unit President, North York General Hospital

What was RNAO’s role during SARS?
RNAO was a strong ally and advocate for nurses and for safety during SARS.

How did SARS change you?
SARS made me aware of how vulnerable we can be as health-care workers, especially to infectious disease. We need to protect ourselves and be alert. I will also always remember Justice Archie Campbell's precautionary principle.

On June 2, 2003, at Queen’s Park, Howard Hampton, then-MPP for Kenora-Rainy River and Leader of the Ontario NDP, spoke in the legislature and asked then-Premier Ernie Eves if he intended to act on RNAO’s call for a public inquiry into the re-emergence of SARS.

My question is for the premier (Ernie Eves). Today your health minister (Tony Clement) said nurses should "hunker down and get the job done." Nurses, specifically the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, have been asking your government to conduct a public inquiry into the re-emergence of SARS. They have stated very clearly that they raised warnings with hospital administrators and other officials early on that SARS was re-emerging in our hospitals, yet their concerns were ignored. They insist that there needs to be an inquiry so all the information can come out. Premier, 31 people have now died. Thousands are under quarantine. Instead of telling the nurses to hunker down, don't you think it's time to listen to their advice and conduct a public inquiry so that all the facts about SARS can emerge into the public?

May 6, 2003 at Queen’s Park: Dalton McGuinty, then leader of the opposition, thanks public health officials and front line health-care workers for their dedication to fighting SARS.

I want to commend public health officials for leading the fight, for keeping people informed, for their courage, their commitment, their competence and, perhaps most of all, their sense of calm in a storm. I want to thank front line health-care workers for their tireless, selfless efforts. What firefighters were to New York City on September 11, nurses and doctors were to Toronto in the spring of 2003. In a word, those nurses and doctors are heroes. What makes their heroism even more remarkable is that we have put them through a lot over the last several years. But when we asked them to do even more, they said, "Of course we will because saving lives is what we do." They do it every single day, quietly, anonymously and professionally. But we have just been reminded in a very dramatic way how precious those people are to us. Let no one ever suggest that a nurse in a hospital is redundant. Let no one ever suggest that a nurse in a hospital is anything but precious.