Memories of SARS

Cohen, Dan

My wife wanted to make my 40th birthday memorable. It was early June 2003 in Toronto. She knew I was a big Celine Dion fan and therefore decided to surprise me by booking a trip to Las Vegas that included tickets to Celine Dion’s show at Caesar’s Palace. She booked the surprise trip 3 months earlier even using her sister’s credit card so I would not be aware of the surprise. She also had my secretary book fictitious appointments for me so that I would not make any other plans for those days. Then, a week before the planned trip, she gave me a card on my actual birthday, it was very sweet and mentioned that she wanted to make this big birthday memorable. Along with the birthday card was included Celine Dion’s latest CD. Only after opening the CD did I notice two small bookmark-like inserts that I initially took for promotional items that often come with CDs. However, upon further examination, it started to dawn on me that those were actual tickets to Celine Dion’s show in Las Vegas for the following week! My wife was 31 weeks pregnant with our second daughter at the time and we were already pushing it by going on a trip so late in the pregnancy but her doctor said she was doing fine and that a 3 day break before the baby came would do us both a lot of good. The next morning I happened to be on call at our hospital for that week when our department chief called me at home to announce that we were all under mandatory quarantine because of a SARS outbreak at our hospital. The mandatory quarantine would last10 days during which time I could not be in public, I could not eat with my family or kiss my child and I would have to sleep in a different room than my wife. The trip was booked for 6 days from now… When I told my wife, she realized the implications and burst into tears. She had not purchased cancellation insurance and the show tickets were non-refundable. She was devastated. I couldn’t even hold her in my arms to comfort her. During that quarantine, as I mentioned, I was on call and I had to assist one of the orthopaedic surgeon with an operation on a patient infected with SARS who had broken his hip. We had to put on extra layers of protection above and beyond the usual sterile technique. I took the help of two nurses and the better part of fifteen minutes just to get dressed and by the time we were ready we looked like astronauts about to embark on a space mission. We were all very anxious and extra careful during the operation and thankfully all went well. That would be the only operation we performed that whole week that I was on call. Since I had to stay at home for the next ten days, I made it my mission to work on rebuilding this trip from the ground up. I first called the Caesar’s Palace hotel in Las Vegas and was promptly told that the tickets were non-refundable and that anyway they were sold out for the next four months. I insisted and retold my story to one customer service representative after another and then moved on to one supervisor after another. I was not giving up, I finally got a hold of a supervisor in VIP services who was very sympathetic to my story and offered to refund my tickets, I explained that with our second child on the way, it would be a least a year before we could make it down there again and that by then the show would have finished its engagement. Finally she said “wait a minute…maybe I can do something for you, let me see it I can pull it off”. A couple of hours later she called me back and said to tear up my tickets and fax them to her so she could release them and then she was going to replaced them with new ones that in her words: “I could not find anywhere” for the same performance two weeks later and that after all that, I had better show up! That put wind under my wings; I had secured new tickets for the show, I was ecstatic, now I had to work on the flights and the hotel. The airline, like every other airline at the time was being very careful about not propagating the SARS infection, was surprisingly accommodating as long as I was able to fax them a letter from the hospital corroborating my situation. They rebooked our flights without any penalty for the time slot we now needed. The hotel however was not as accommodating. I tried and tried and went nowhere. I had to resort to suggesting that going to the media would be my only other option and tell the media how both the show representatives and the airline understood that these were extraordinary circumstances and that they both showed compassion and a sense of civic duty in helping us rebook this trip. The fear of bad publicity finally made them bend, but they had no openings to rebook us for our new time slot and finally offered us a refund after multiple letters from the Toronto Public Health office and the hospital to make sure I was not making this up. I was then able to book a new hotel for the right time slot. I presented my wife with the finished package and she was very happy until she looked at the dates… Our new trip would be leaving at 35 weeks into her pregnancy. Airlines will not let you fly after 36 weeks of pregnancy, let alone the fact that she was now getting pretty big and tired easily, but she still wanted to go. So she went to see her obstetrician who gave her a letter certifying that she was under 36 weeks of pregnancy on those dates and therefore able to fly. The mandatory quarantine passed and off we went to Las Vegas. At the Toronto airport both Canadian security staff and the US customs officer looked at my wife and read the letter suspiciously but they let us through. Upon checking into the hotel in Las Vegas, the reception clerk took one look at my wife and said “Lady you are ripe, I’m upgrading you to a King size bed!” that was very nice. We didn’t visit Las Vegas as much as we had hoped because my wife would get short of breath and very tired in the desert heat. But we had a few nice meals in the air conditioned malls of the beautiful hotels on the strip. On the third and last day of our trip, we went to Celine Dion’s show at Caesar’s Palace. The tickets were waiting for us at the booth as promised and when we were escorted to our seats we could not believe their location. We had the best seats in the house, upper balcony, front an center; we were told those seats are usually reserved for last minute VIPs. The performance was out of this world and worth all the trouble we had coming here. The next day it was time to come home, upon boarding the Air Canada flight home, the stewardess took one look at my wife and said “you are not doing this in my plane!” to which my wife answered “it’s ok I have my own doctor with me” while pointing at me and added that the baby was not due for another month. We landed uneventfully in Toronto that evening. Upon deplaning, my wife tapped on her belly and said jokingly “it’s ok, you can come now, we are home.” My parents picked us up from the airport and drove us home. I was very excited about our trip and wanted to show them the pictures we took. My wife said she was a little tired and that she was going to lie down for a bit. I had not finished hooking up our camera to the television that she called out for me to come upstairs to our bedroom where I found here standing in a puddle, her water had just broke at 35 and a half weeks, 4 and a half weeks before her due date. I called the hospital to notify our obstetrician only to find out that our hospital was closed due to SARS. What should we do now I asked the receptionist, “you’re going to have to go elsewhere” she said. We looked at each other and wondered what now? My wife said well lets just go to Mount Sinai, I was born there, and it’s a good hospital. Off we went, upon arriving, the hospital was deserted, people were staying away from hospitals for fear of contracting SARS. It was eerie, we were literally the only ones there when we arrived at the triage desk of the emergency department. The receptionist who seemed annoyed by our presence looked at us and asked why we were here, I pointed at my wife and said “the baby is coming”. After the usual paperwork we were sent up to the maternity ward where my wife was examined by the nurse and we were told to stay and we were put in a birthing room were we waited until the baby decided to arrive around 4:30 the next morning. Our beautiful daughter arrived at 35 and a half weeks of pregnancy, over a month early, perfectly healthy and apparently unaware of what an adventure her parents had just had. She caught us so off guard that we did not even have a name for her for three days. Many, upon hearing our story suggested we should call her Celine. Pondering on this nearly ten years later I realise what a crazy time this was and how we needed to escape the insanity of SARS at all costs. Well, in retrospect my fortieth birthday was certainly memorable.

Theme: Birth | Naissance
Theme: Community | Communauté
Theme: Health Care Delivery | Prestation des soins de santé
Theme: History | Histoire
Theme: Physicians | Médecins

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.




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