Trauma of SARS helps RN see that nursing is a true calling

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Ten years ago, Saverina Sanchez was ready to quit nursing for good. Today, she’s a clinical manager and has her baccalaureate as well as her master’s degree in nursing, all thanks to the strength she was able to build during the deadly SARS outbreak in Ontario in 2003.

SARS pushed many nurses and health-care providers to the brink of their personal and professional capacities. And Sanchez was no exception. “We lost the ability to act on our own volition,” she recalls. “(SARS) was probably my darkest moment in nursing.”

She looks back with a mix of anger and distress at how nurses at the Toronto facility where she worked during the outbreak were forbidden from speaking to one another. Security guards would measure the distance between nurses snacking in the cafeteria to ensure they were sitting at least a metre apart to prevent the spread of rumours. She and her colleagues were warned that if they didn’t report for duty, they would be terminated. Health professionals at her organization were also urged to restrict contact with family and friends.

Each constraint left Sanchez feeling less and less in control. It wouldn’t take long for her to begin thinking: “I can’t do this anymore. I’m quitting nursing.” But before she could leave the profession for good, Sanchez felt compelled to tell someone what nurses had to endure. This mysterious disease was still in its early days, and the public wasn’t aware of the turmoil health-care facilities were undergoing as it spread.

“I knew in my heart that…I couldn’t continue in the state that we were in. Somebody needed to know that something was wrong,” she says. Crying, she dialed RNAO and was connected to then-Executive Director (now CEO) Doris Grinspun, who assured the distraught RN that the situation would improve. Grinspun called the hospital’s chief nurse executive and CEO to demand nurses not only receive the respect they deserve, but also the basic necessities they were being denied. According to Sanchez, health-care providers were discouraged from making trips to the grocery store for water or food, or to the bank.

The strength she drew from RNAO was invaluable, Sanchez recalls. The association “supported (nurses) without judgment, and actually listened…and helped solve the problem(s).” This gratitude soon led to her involvement as a media spokesperson. The experience helped her to see the power of speaking out. Sanchez became one of only a handful of front-line RNs who would share their experiences publicly at the height of the outbreak, helping to expose the tumult at the time.

SARS also “taught me that even in my darkest moment, I was born to be a nurse, and I couldn’t give it up,” she says. That’s why she persevered and went on to pursue her degree and then her master’s. “I realized I could make a difference as a manager, respecting the people that I report to, but always with the safety of patients and staff at the forefront.” Despite the traumatizing effects of the outbreak, Sanchez recognizes how the experience shaped her. “If it wasn’t for SARS, I wouldn’t…have had the conviction and the drive that I needed to get me where I am today.”

This is an excerpt from a longer feature published in the May/June 2013 issue of Registered Nurse Journal, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario’s (RNAO) bi-monthly magazine. To read the complete feature, visit www.RNAO.ca/resources/rnj/back-issues. Since 1925, RNAO has advocated for healthy public policy, promoted excellence in nursing practice, increased nurses’ contribution to shaping the health-care system, and influenced decisions that affect nurses and the public they serve. To find out more, visit www.RNAO.ca.

SARS TIMELINE

March 5, 2003 – The first person in Ontario, a woman who recently returned from Hong Kong, dies of SARS at her Toronto home after developing a fever, sore throat, cough, muscle pain and shortness of breath. Eight days later, her son dies after developing the same symptoms.

March 26 – Ontario declares a public health emergency after 27 probable cases of SARS are reported. Toronto hospitals are closed to most visitors beginning the following day.

March 31 – The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) launches the SARS Nursing Advisory Committee, which brings together senior representatives from major nursing organizations, affected health-care organizations, and the Nursing Secretariat to discuss ways of streamlining communication and co-ordinating timely support. The group meets every other day during the height of the outbreak.

June 9 -RNAO delivers a written request to then-Premier Ernie Eves, asking his government to order a full public inquiry into the epidemic. The association’s then-President Adeline Falk-Rafael and Executive Director (now CEO) Doris Grinspun host a press conference at Queen’s Park, joined by RNs and RPNs who are wearing masks conveying three powerful statements: muzzled, silenced and ignored.

June 10-  Eves announces an independent investigation into SARS. RNAO says this falls short of a full public inquiry.

Aug 11 – RNAO announces the launch of a voluntary electronic registry of nurses willing to be redeployed in the event of health emergencies. The Voluntary Immediately Available Nurse program (VIANurse) is expected to help Ontario cope with future health crises.

August 12 Health Canada releases statistics on the total number of reported SARS cases in Ontario: 375. This number represents about 86 per cent of all Canadian cases of SARS.

Sept 29 – RNAO presents to the independent Commission to Investigate the Introduction and Spread of SARS, providing recommendations for the government, health-care organizations, and the nursing profession that would allow nurses to provide quality patient care at all times.

Nov 17 – RNAO again appears before the independent Commission to Investigate the Introduction and Spread of SARS, this time on occupational health and safety.

June 29, 2004 –  RNAO releases SARS Unmasked: Celebrating Resilience, Exposing Vulnerability, a final report on nurses’ experiences during the outbreak. The association honours the commitment and dedication of front-line nurses during the epidemic, and marks the one-year anniversary of the loss of RNs Nelia Laroza and Tecla Lin to SARS, hosting a private gathering for the nursing community.