White Coat, Black Art

'Stand up for yourself': Amid coronavirus outbreak, nurse reflects on living through SARS in 2003

In 2003, nurse Susan Sorrenti contracted SARS while working at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. As a similar virus prompts health warnings in China and around the world, Sorrenti recalls her gruelling experience and reflects on the lessons we can learn as we grapple with this new illness.

Susan Sorrenti got sick from virus while working at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital

Susan Sorrenti, top left, with husband Greg Smith and children Samantha Smith, bottom left, and Angela Smith at their home in Peterborough, Ont. Sorrenti is a nurse who contracted SARS while working at Mount Sinai Hospital in 2003. (Amy Dempsey/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode26:29

As a new type of coronavirus prompts lockdowns and quarantines in China, nurse Susan Sorrenti says health-care workers in Toronto are feeling a sense of déjà vu.

In 2003, she was exposed to a patient with the SARS virus while on the job.

For 17 days, she remained in quarantine at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she worked, with no visitors allowed and nothing but a phone to connect her to her husband and two young children waiting at home.

"It was brutal," Sorrenti said. "And it was augmented by the fact that while in hospital I was on very high doses of steroids which affected me psychologically as well. I was in a great depression."

More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed in China and the death toll had risen to more than 40 as of Friday night, according to the Health Commission of Hubei Province. 

In 2003, more than 800 people worldwide — including 44 Canadians — died of SARS, a virus from the same family as the coronavirus.

However, infectious disease specialists in Toronto say Canada is much better prepared to deal with the new coronavirus than it was with SARS. 

White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman spoke with Sorrenti about her days in quarantine and the anxiety that followed her SARS diagnosis in 2003.

Here is part of their conversation.

How did you first come in contact with SARS back in 2003?

Our patient was transferred to us from a hospital that was quarantined, but the patient had been screened and deemed OK for transport. Obviously, as events turned out, it did not end up that way. That patient did actually have contact with the SARS from China.

How much contact did you have with that patient?

We had actually been exposed to the patient with no isolation gear whatsoever when the patient was transported into the [intensive care] unit. Unfortunately, the EMS that transported the patient had not notified us of the arrival. We had planned to gear up as best we could, but we did not have a chance. So we were fully exposed to the patient coming in: coughing and secretions were abounding.

Describe for me the moment when you realized you were getting sick yourself.

We had been called at home and told to impose ourselves into some kind of quarantine situation where we were to be apart from our family and try to eat in a different area and not have anything to do with our family members.

We were then told to ... take our temperature every four hours, and if we noticed any symptoms developing, we were to contact public health immediately or to go to the hospital. 

How did you feel at that moment when you were asked to go into self-quarantine?

Dreadful. I was so concerned for my family. I mean, the whole anxiety of it all was not so much as myself getting sick as, did I by any chance get my family members or any members of my community sick? I was very concerned for everyone that was in my proximity.

Susan Sorrenti was working as a registered nurse at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital in 2003 when she became ill with SARS. She says she contracted the virus while on the job because she wasn't equipped with protective gear. (Sujata Berry/CBC)

Forty-four people in Canada died of SARS. Was there a moment when you were worried that that might happen to you?

They provided us with a television inside the rooms and, of course, the whole media coverage, the whole media blitz on what was happening and the way it was spun, how dangerous it was and how many people are dying every day — yes that did cross my mind. 

I was not ready to go. I didn't have anything prepared. But it was on my mind.

The precautions that were taken, that were developed — you know, the gowns and the gloves and the N95 masks ... and the paper masks, the paper hoods … basically you had little or none of that the day when you were exposed. Did that bother you as you thought about this illness that you were going through?

Actually, it really did…. I did ask our nurse manager at the time for more support. I actually went to her and said, you know, we don't feel like we're really being supported with the amount of isolation gear we're asking for, versus what we're getting, and was there any way that we could increase the amount.

And I was basically deferred to whatever infection control said we were to do, and that's all we were going to get.

We wanted to err on the side of caution, but we weren't allowed to do that.- Susan Sorrenti, nurse

We wanted to err on the side of caution, but we weren't allowed to do that. There just [weren't] enough supplies for us to do that, so we had to basically make do with what we did.

People wearing masks walk through the Ginza shopping district on Friday in Tokyo, Japan. Cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Japan, the United States, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and South Korea. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

You're still a practicing nurse. Do you think we've learned since then? Are the precautions better?

Yes, the precautions are better. We have learned. We've done … respiratory screening on most of the patients that come through the [emergency room]. We do travel checks.

You know, these kinds of things now are commonplace, everyday things that happen that will hopefully prevent this from happening again to the extent it did in Toronto.

Physically you got better. But there have been studies done about the long-term emotional impacts, including PTSD in some health-care workers. So what was the aftermath like for you?

When I first came in there [was] still the screening at the entrances of the hospital, the barricading with plastic sheets everywhere. It was very surreal going back into work. That in itself caused me a great deal of anxiety before I even got on to the unit.

I'm guessing you remember very well the day you were reunited with your family.

Oh my God, yes, I do. I do. And it was a beautiful day. It was a gorgeous day outside. Sunny. 

My husband met me outside of the hospital and I was, I don't know, I can't explain the feeling. I didn't think it was gonna happen. I didn't think I was ever going to see them.

So it was great. It was the most marvellous day.

What are the biggest lessons that people like you and I, who work in health care, and you, who had SARS, can learn from that entire personal and professional experience?

I think, being more advocates for ourselves and really actually following our instincts  … not to ignore signs that there are dangers, and not to accept any kind of less-than-adequate protection for yourself.

Like, to stand up for yourself—that was my biggest lesson that I learned about that.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Dawna Dingwall, Sujata Berry and Jeff Goodes. With files from CBC's The Current. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Click 'Listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

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