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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


SARS: On the front line

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

The lobby of St Michael's Hospital is filled with hospital workers covered from head to toe in protective clothing. Their faces are well hidden behind thick masks designed to protect them from contracting Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

This frightening image is enough to make any patient or visitor coming through the door of the hospital want to walk right out again. But how do the hospital's employees feel about the new precautionary measures and their heightened risks of contracting SARS?
Nurses in full protective clothing listen to a hospital staff press conference prior to the opening last week of the fourth Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) assessment clinic in Ontario at the Trillium Hospital in the west end of Toronto.

Reports last week estimated that at least 40% of the probable cases of SARS in Ontario and 27% of the suspected cases involved health-care workers.

Yesterday, the Ontario Ministry of Health confirmed that there were 91 probable and 99 suspected cases of SARS -- and union sources suggest that number includes at least 14 nurses, three paramedics, three doctors and five other hospital workers.

Clearly, medical workers are more likely to have contact with SARS than other Canadians. But Dr. Elliot Halparin, president of the Ontario Medical Association, who also works in emergency at Georgetown's William Osler Health Centre, is confident he faces no additional danger.

"I feel safe working at the moment because there is no evidence that SARS has been transmitted to anyone using the proper precautions," he says.

The SARS rules call for doctors, nurses and other medical workers to wear masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection in various working situations in order to protect them from catching or passing on the highly contagious respiratory illness.

"I'm not looking forward to having to wear a mask all the time at work," says Janet McIvor, a Registered Practical Nurse (RPN) at Scarborough Hospital General Division. She returned to work this week after 10 days in quarantine following a visit to Scarborough Grace on March 24.

"It's hard to work with these masks on," Janet explains. "It's hard to breathe. The masks are thick and you sweat when you wear them. But these precautions are definitely a necessity, and so that's what we have to do."

Anyone thinking of getting a job in a hospital does consider the risks that they may face, but according to Barb Wahl, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA), infectious disease hasn't been at the top of the list of dangers ONA members have reported in the past.

"According to anecdotal evidence, there are three things that nurses say they suffer from most, and that's violence in the workplace, musculoskeletal injuries and needle stick injuries," she says. "The problem is that the patient comes first, and often nurses don't consider their own safety."

Will the current SARS crisis discourage potential doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health-care workers from doing the job?

Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions -- part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) -- thinks not.

"If you're deterred by the prospect of being exposed to disease, this is the wrong line of work for you, because these occupations do take their toll, emotionally and physically. It's heartbreaking sometimes. Some of your patients may die. If you do this kind of job it's because you love it."

Janet McIvor agrees: "I have had opportunities to take other jobs," she says. "But nothing is more rewarding than making a sick person feel better. Even if we can't always cure people, a smile or a kind word from us can make a huge difference for our patients. There's nothing more important to me than that."

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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