CBC In Depth
The hospital is on Orange Alert: My visit to the doctor
by Robin Rowland, CBC News Online | May 27, 2003

Join the screening line and get used to it, it's probably here to stay.

Today I had a routine visit to a doctor at one of Toronto's largest hospitals, a visit in the "new normal" age of SARS, with double and triple screening of patients, forms to fill in, and the now-ubiquitous temperature check in the ear.

When I got home from work last night, there was a message on my answering machine from my doctor's receptionist asking me to call back as soon as possible for a pre-visit SARS screening. By that time, the doctor's office was closed.

The receptionist hadn't called me at my office. Why? They're so busy, I was told, that they call the first number on a list and then go on to the next patient. Technically, when that happens, the patient is supposed to be called back at the end of the day and told not to come in until there's been a phone screening. But the overwork continues and often the receptionists don't have the time to do that, either.

When I got off the bus and went to the small side door that leads to the family practice unit, a sign proclaimed STOP! It redirected me to the main entrance.

At that main entrance, there were two large signs, outlining what people should do. I just glanced at them, with directions to M-Main and M-G, but no explanation what either bit of alphabet soup meant. At the door, a woman, masked in blue and gowned in yellow, squished a glob of clear hand-washing fluid on my hands and asked if I was staff, visitor or if I had a doctor's appointment. Ahead of me snaked a long line of people, filling out orange forms.

"I have a doctor's appointment."

"Across the street and down the elevator. Patients use M-Ground," I was told.

So I cross the street and wait for a small elevator. Inside the elevator, beside the button designated the B-2 parking level, is a piece of masking tape labelled M-G.

The elevator opens into a parking area, where there's another entrance, another line. At the door, there's a security guard – masked in yellow, no gown – who also squishes some hand-washing liquid from a dispenser and hands me a purple form, asking if I have had fever, cold symptoms, flu-like aches and pains, or if I had visited Southeast Asia in the past 10 days.

I fill out the form and hand it to a masked woman at a desk. She drops her temperature monitor into a dispenser and out clicks a small plastic cover for the sensor. She pops it in my ear. Then she wraps a colour-coded paper band around my wrist. "That show's you've been screened," I'm told and I am cleared to proceed.

When I arrive at my doctor's office, my first impression is that it was a leftover police crime scene. Yellow tape is draped over the chairs in the waiting room. A closer look shows that every third chair is clear of the tape. "We have to keep patients more than a metre apart," I am told.

After I check in, I sit in one of the free chairs. The receptionist is on the phone, asking the same set of questions to a prospective patient. "Do you have a fever? Do you have cold-like symptoms? Do you have aches and pains?"

The nurse calls me into an examination room. She has a white form, and she asks me the same questions. I don't have a fever. I haven't been to Southeast Asia since February 2002.

"We started double screening after we found out that the patients were lying," the nurse told me. "They were afraid that if they didn't see the doctor, they might not get another appointment for months." So now, if a patient does have a cold or flu or some other symptom, their appointment is cancelled, but they are then guaranteed a new appointment in about three weeks, to ensure both that they stay home and that they are reassured that they will be able to see a doctor as soon as they're clear.

"We're also afraid that really sick patients may not be calling because of the screening procedures, because they may be afraid they're not going to get an appointment. It's like someone with chest pains who say to themselves 'no I am not having a heart attack.' We will see them, we have set up isolation rooms so we can examine urgent patients."

"This is probably going to become normal," she told me later as she drew some blood from my arm.

I saw the doctor; she didn't ask me anything about SARS and I was on my way.

At the door where I normally enter the office, the window was covered with a large piece of orange bristol board. The sign read:

The Hospital is on Orange Alert.

This is now a fire exit only.

» SARS Screening Form



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