Tuesday, June 3, 2008

369)Here's a toast to the late Dr Sheela Basrur, my former classmate at the University of Toronto Medical School; great communicator, great humanity.

Those were memorable years in medical school at the University of Toronto from 1978 to 1982, 30 years ago. The class size was huge(252 students) compared to other medical class sizes in Canada and if you ask me what I knew of my classmate Dr. Sheela Basrur, not much is what I would say. Why am I writing this piece on a blog whose topic deals with the link between science and religion in Islam? My answer is that I allow myself a certain amount of poetic licence to write on off-topic posts that I feel passionate about.

I certainly knew of Sheela's existence in my class. One image of her really sticks out in my mind: I was sitting in the front row of the lecture theatre as I always did and one day I saw this diminutive, fragile-looking fellow student slowly limp into class on crutches. It appears that she had broken her leg during some sporting event and it was in a cast. She limped on at her own pace, gingerly went up the stairs to sit at the back of the class with her own cabal of fellow students. That's it! If she had been a keener like me and sat in the front of the class I might have gotten to know her better. Or, if I was not so much of a geek I might have prowled around at the back in the nether regions of the sprawling classroom at the Medical Sciences Building and gotten to know her better there. Sigh!

Everybody eventually went their own ways and the next time I heard about Sheela Basrur was when she was the Medical Officer of Health for East York in Toronto. I remember telling my wife excitedly, "I know her, she used to be my classmate at the U of T!". But her true genius was really only laid bare for all of us to behold during the SARS crisis in Toronto. She commanded the city's attention on TV as the great communicator, speaking calmly but firmly in impeccable King's English, in soothing, reassuring tones and the city of Toronto latched onto her and we were all pacified. She combined her certain knowledge of this unusual viral illness with a unique communication style to reassure a very anxious city and it worked magically. As I read and watch all the accolades pouring in about Sheela I feel lucky to have breathed the same air as her for four years.

Dr. Sheela Basrur, 51: Guided city through SARS
TheStar.com - Obituary

June 03, 2008
Tanya Talaga
Prithi Yelaja
Staff Reporters

In the darkest days of Toronto's fight against SARS, when people were dying and thousands more were quarantined prisoners in their homes, a small, mighty woman took control of the worst public health disaster to grip this city in years.

Standing barely 5 feet tall, Dr. Sheela Basrur was the calm voice of reason as people fell sick from a never before seen flu-like illness, prompting the World Health Organization to slap a devastating travel advisory against Toronto.

"None of us knew the situation, everybody was maxed out," said Liz Janzen, Basrur's colleague and friend from Toronto Public Health. "But she was able to talk about it, explain it and go out and express it in a way people could hear."

Basrur, the first woman of colour to be named both Toronto's chief medical officer of health in 1998 and then Ontario's in 2004, died yesterday after losing her struggle with a rare form of cancer. She was 51.

"Her way of communicating connected with people," said Janzen. "I remember going to her when things were very difficult and she'd sit on the edge of her seat, upright, and she'd listen. People here loved her."

She was a role model to many – a busy, single working mom. Her daughter, Simone, spent hours playing at her side, waiting to go home or out to a movie.

"Many a time Simone had to sit in her mom's office. I'd take her out for lunch or bring her a treat," said Janzen. "Simone was very patient. She showed her mother's stamina."

That stamina, in a woman often described as a "diminutive dynamo," helped Basrur as she put on a brave face during treatment for leiomyosarcoma, a rare vascular cancer that began in her uterus and spread to her spine, liver and lungs.

She carried on with her life, making public appearances and talking to the media. When Basrur showed up at Queen's Park in December 2006 to hear the announcement of a new Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion, the province's first arm's-length public health agency, MPPs gave her a standing ovation.

This spring, she rallied against the disease. Basrur answered calls from journalists and well-wishers and posed for a cover shoot for the May/June issue of Desi Life magazine.

"This is a sad day," said federal Health Minister Tony Clement, who was provincial health minister during the 2003 SARS crisis. He got to know Basrur well then, attending round-the-clock meetings and news conferences together.

"We had to rely on her every hour of every day," Clement said. "She was part of the public face of getting our message out on how we would fight the outbreak and she was integrally involved in strategy meetings morning, noon and night. She never lost her head."

Basrur's passing is everyone's loss, said Dr. Don Low, microbiology chief at Mount Sinai Hospital. "Everyone knew it was coming but it is so hard," said Low, who became a friend and colleague during the SARS crisis which claimed 44 Toronto lives. "It was during those tough times at the beginning, when no one knew what we were dealing with, she was the calm and confidence that got the message across."

But it was after she became Ontario's chief medical officer of health in 2004 that Basrur really shone.

"That was such an overwhelming task she agreed to take on and she did it because (Health Minister George) Smitherman asked her to," Low said. "It was hard to say no. I don't think it was something she was anxious to do but she was called upon. Public health in Ontario had been neglected for years. She reorganized it. Got the troops fired up and made people proud of what they were doing."

The daughter of immigrants who arrived from India in the 1950s, Basrur was born in Toronto and grew up in Guelph.

Science was always part of her life. Her mother, Pari Basrur, was a veterinary genetics professor and her father, Vasanth Basrur, a radiation oncologist. Growing up, Basrur recalled being the only minority family in town at the time and creating a stir when she and her sari-clad mother walked down the street.

"She understood being a woman of colour in her position was important and that faces are reflected in our power structure," said Janzen.

Basrur graduated from the University of Toronto with a medical degree in 1982. The next year, she bought an around-the-world plane ticket and headed for Europe, Nepal and India. It was in the latter two countries where she saw the importance of preventive health practices. She became convinced that public health was where she could make the most difference.

"I saw in very stark relief some of the health-care rationalization choices that can plague patients, as well as doctors and governments," Basrur said recently. "It smacked me squarely in the face."

When Basrur explained to people why she found public health so important to society, she would often tell a story of people drowning in a river, said Janzen. "When you are downstream, you see people in the water and you drag them out but they keep coming. But you go up the river and you find out why they swam down the stream. That is why she went into public health."

In addition to SARS, Basrur deftly led the charge on other public health campaigns. In 2001, she spearheaded DineSafe, the first program of its kind in Canada, which required restaurants to post health inspection pass or fail results in their windows. She was instrumental in implementing a city-wide smoking ban in 2004. She also devised a city plan to tackle bioterrorism post-9/11.

Outspoken and independent-minded, Basrur refused to back down on issues she cared about, even earning the admiration of those with whom she had tangled.

Though she lived in Scarborough, Basrur opted to be treated in Kitchener to be closer to her parents. She leaves her daughter Simone, 17, and her only sibling, sister Jyothi.

A private funeral is planned and a public memorial will be held at a later date. Donations can be made in her memory to the Grand River Hospital Foundation in Kitchener.


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Easy Nash

The Qur'an itself repeatedly recommends Muslims to become better educated in order better to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
The Quran tells us that signs of Allah's Sovereignty are found in the contemplation of His Creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
This notion of the capacity of the human intellect to understand and to admire the creation of Allah will bring you happiness in your everyday lives: Aga Khan IV(2007)
Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2006)
The first and only thing created by God was the Intellect(Aql)(Prophet Muhammad, circa 632CE)