Dr. Sheela Basrur dies

Sheela Basrur, M.D., has died of a rare form of cancer. She was East York’s Medical Officer of Health and then Toronto’s. As such, she was responsible for public health. She is best known for being the voice of health authority during Toronto’s SARS crisis in 2003. She was appointed Chief Medical Office or Health for Ontario in 2004.

Dr. Sheela Basrur during SARS crisis

The Belleville Intelligencer said that her death was felt in Belleville:

Dr. Richard Schabas, medical officer of health for the Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit, said he not only knew Basrur, but they walked the same career paths….

“She was obviously very, very respected,” he said, and “passionate” about her job. “She believed passionately in public health.”

In March, Basrur sent word out to her friends that she did not expect to live much longer. Leiomyosarcoma, the disease that caused her to step down as medical officer of health for Ontario in December 2006, had quickly progressed to her spine, lungs and liver.

That same month, the new Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion was created, the province’s first arm’s-length public agency. It will be named the Sheela Basrur Centre, something that would have made her happy, Schabas said.

Sheela Basrur, M.D., during SARS crisis

The Toronto Star says,

Cancer took her life, robbing Ontario of one of its most trusted and beloved medical authorities. When Toronto was in the grip of the SARS crisis, in 2003, Basrur rose to the challenge issuing protocols, advising governments and calming public fears with daily briefings.

As the first medical officer of health for an amalgamated Toronto, she brought frankness, compassion and humour to her work as well as cool expertise under pressure. It was what the city needed to defeat SARS and institute changes designed to ward off similar outbreaks.

Her success led her to the provincial level – she became Ontario’s chief medical officer in 2004. It was a post where she should have served many more years but in 2006 Basrur was diagnosed with a rare cancer afflicting the muscles and other soft tissue. She stepped down and bravely fought the disease before finally succumbing, at age 51, in the care of her father, radiation oncologist Dr. Vasanth Basrur.

As well as leading the battle against SARS, Basrur was instrumental in creating Toronto’s anti-smoking bylaw and, later, Ontario’s ban of smoking in enclosed public places. She also led the way in outlawing non-essential pesticide use, in fighting toxic air pollution, and in improving restaurant safety.

Her loss is a blow to all Ontarians. But Basrur’s contribution to the province endures, and so does her inspiring example of courage and good humour, even in the face of deadly illness.

Sheela Basrur, M.D., with Order of Ontario

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