While Dr. Basrur was Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer, she witnessed the arrival of the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, and immediately moved into problem-solving mode. She worked three weeks straight after the first cases were discovered. She led the team that charted the SARS course, trying to build firewalls between the infected and those who were vulnerable to its path. Health workers were dying along with SARS patients.
As reported in the Globe and Mail, “a female co-worker remembers bumping into Dr. Basrur one day during the crisis as she emerged from a washroom. The co-worker told Dr. Basrur that she looked wonderful and the doctor responded by saying she felt tired. The co-worker said, ‘Sheela, you’re great. The whole city loves you and is counting on you. And this morning on the radio I heard the host of the morning show say that he knew it was okay to go out because the little doctor with the glasses said it was.’ Dr. Basrur laughed and hugged the woman in delight and went off to try and save more lives. Several years later, the co-worker e-mailed Dr. Basrur and asked if she remembered the incident. She said ‘yes, but I believe he said cute little famous doctor with the glasses.’”
Colleagues described Dr. Basrur as a mentor for clear communication. One public health official said Dr. Basrur’s gender, height, skin colour, and articulateness acted as a catalyst for her own choice of public health as a career.