It's a thing you notice about the people who came through the SARS crisis of 2003. Survivors, responders — they remember the outbreak in exquisite detail.
Malik Peiris, a Hong Kong microbiologist who helped find the virus responsible for the outbreak, was out for Valentine's Day with his wife when a contact from the World Health Organization called to talk about rumoured illnesses in China's Guangdong province.
Lena Stewart knows April 1, 2003 was a Tuesday, the day she worked a nursing shift at Toronto's North York General Hospital with a SARS-infected colleague and caught the virus that changed her life.
Dr. Donald Low, one of the leaders of Toronto's SARS response, recalls poring over patient charts at North York General throughout the Victoria Day weekend, recognizing with a welling sense of dread that a disease Ontario had declared licked a few days earlier was actually still spreading among health-care workers and hospital patients.
Ten years on, the six-month outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome — a name chosen deliberately for its acronym, SARS — is as etched in the memories of the people who lived through the crisis as it is in the annals of medical history. An incredible saga, SARS ended lives and decimated some afflicted families. It made some careers and destroyed others.
"Every day feels like it happened yesterday. Every moment of the day feels like it happened yesterday. You have the constant reminders — the pain, the shortness of breath," says Stewart, a former nurse who remains on disability leave.
SARS still saps Stewart's energy and haunts her sleep. She has reduced lung function, crushing fatigue and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.
"Where I used to throw on laundry, go out to do groceries, come back, change loads over — you know, simple things like that —it's changed the whole way that I live," Stewart explains of the toll the disease took on her body and her psyche.
While many people who were infected recovered completely, a fair number in Toronto and in other outbreak settings suffer long-term physical consequences of the disease or of the treatments used, says Paula Gardner, a clinical psychologist at St. John's Rehab, now a division of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
Gardner, who has studied the long-term effects of the disease on Toronto SARS cases, says PTSD is not uncommon among SARS survivors, especially those who were health-care workers.
Globally, 20 per cent of confirmed SARS cases were health-care workers. In Canada, health-care workers made up 43 per cent of SARS cases.