Dr. Sheela Basrur, Ontario’s ‘Mighty Mouse’

Dr. Sheela Basrur, known for her calm and reassuring demeanor during the 2003 SARS crisis that shook Toronto, died Monday of cancer. She was 51. Since November 2006, Dr. Basrur had been battling a rare form of vascular cancer known as hemangiopericytoma. She died at the Grand River Cancer Centre in Kitchener Ont.

Right: Sheela Basrur

Dr. Basrur was Toronto’s medical officer of health when, in 2003, a virulent illness arrived in Toronto from Hong Kong. Known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), it made Toronto SARS-central in a global battle against the mysterious disease.

Dr. Basrur became the calm face of public health, in Toronto and to the world, as she held daily media briefings and managed the crisis for the city. When Ontario was seeking a chief medical officer of health for the province, Dr. Basrur was appointed to the role. Her mandate was to revamp how health care was delivered in the province and to put into place the framework to prevent another SARS from happening.

In recognition for her pivotal role in public health, York University conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree on her in 2007. Ravaged by the cancer she was fighting, Dr. Basrur came to York to accept her degree. A Webcast of her convocation address can be viewed here.

"Sheela was a colleague of mine for over two decades as she undertook major leadership roles in public health. Her warmth and compassion on the outside was matched by her inner strength and conviction," said Harvey Skinner, dean of York’s Faculty of Health.

"Sheela is best remembered for her leadership as Toronto’s medical officer of health during the 2003 SARS crisis in Toronto. She was the city’s voice of reason providing calm, clear and accessible information to a very nervous community," said Skinner. "But there is so much more to her accomplishments: being at the forefront of developing women’s health programs, ensuring equitable access to health services, and addressing the unique issues facing immigrant and refugee women."

In April, she was awarded the Order of Ontario in her hospital bed by Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley. The following day, Dr. Basrur rallied and came to Toronto with "a pocketful of pills and tissues" to attend a reception in her honour. It was during the reception when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty called her tough and a "regular Mighty Mouse" in reference to her tiny 5-foot frame and her steely determination in the face of overwhelming odds.

Dr. Basrur leaves her daughter Simone Koves, 17, and her parents, Vasnath and Parvathi Basrur.