Allison McGeer had been taking her temperature twice a day, as all doctors entering hospitals were instructed to do. On the morning of March 30, she pulled the thermometer from her mouth and cursed the high reading: 38.1.
Body aches soon gave way to chills. Within hours, her fever crept above 39. She had been fighting to contain SARS from the first week it was identified in Canada. She needed no one to tell her she had contracted the disease.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome has a troubling tendency to strike health workers on the front lines. It has killed the Nobel-Prize-winning Italian doctor who first recognized the outbreak, felled Hong Kong's chief of hospitals and now has taken down one of Canada's leading infectious-disease specialists.
Dr. McGeer, director of infection control for Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, has been battling the atypical pneumonia in an isolation room at Mount Sinai for more than a week.
Confident that she is recuperating, Dr. McGeer felt well enough yesterday to speak for the first time about her infection, her frustration and why she understands the stigma coming to surround this mysterious disease, which has struck 2,601 people and killed 98 worldwide.
"I think people are right to be a little leery to come near me," she said. "In this situation, where you have a disease that's new and there are a lot of unknowns . . . you can't always control the irrationality of fears . . . you have to be respectful of people's fears, but not allow them to sweep us away."
Dr. McGeer is the health worker who inadvertently exposed others to the disease at the Ontario SARS emergency operations centre on March 29, a day before her symptoms showed up.
That encounter led to the quarantine of six other health officials, none of whom have gone on to develop the disease.
She always knew she and SARS were engaged in a dangerous dance. When the first SARS death was recognized at Scarborough Grace Hospital on March 13 -- days before the disease even had a name -- she was the lead infection-control consultant dispatched.
On the weekend of March 21, after doctors realized Scarborough Grace health workers had contracted SARS from the first infected patients, Dr. McGeer spent 80 hours in the east-end institution just as it geared up to close.
At least the long hours spared her husband and children much chance of exposure, she thought. "In general, I was coming home around 2 o'clock in the morning and sleeping alone up on the third floor and leaving again around 7 a.m., saying, 'See you in the morning. . . .' "
When she did see them, she kept herself masked. She also did so at the Scarborough Grace, although at some unknown point she must have made close contact with an infected health worker who would later realize he or she had contracted the illness.
Dr. McGeer fell sick a week later. "Mostly I think I was frustrated," she said. "It was a situation in which everybody needs to be pulling their weight. The most difficult thing has been not being able to do that . . . this is not a three-day illness, but a three-week illness."
But despite her high fever and "patch of pneumonia" -- which never required a ventilator -- Dr. McGeer has remained connected by phone and e-mail from her hospital bed.
Mount Sinai Hospital has lost both of its top infectious-disease specialists to SARS in the past week. Microbiology chief Donald Low was among the six forced into quarantine after chatting with Dr. McGeer at the emergency operations centre on March 29.
Dr. Low, who is healthy and is to be freed from his 10-day quarantine today, having experienced nothing worse than cabin fever, said he too expects to encounter the growing sense of stigma surrounding SARS.
"I'm sure people are going to look at me in a different light when I come out," he said. "I've had calls from teachers about whether it's okay for my son [who is 19]to be at school."
Family and friends, like those of many others who have been prisoners in their homes, have "been leaving food by the door, ringing the bell and then running away."
To some extent, Dr. Low said, the experience puts him in mind of the 1980s when little was understood about HIV and its modes of transmission.
"People will look upon that person who has had exposure, no matter how much assurance we may give, as someone who could be infectious," he said. "People don't really know who is infectious, how the disease is transmitted, or for how long someone could be infectious. It's all the unknowns that contribute to the stigmatization."
What's more, Dr. Low said, this disease has left many with a sense of guilt that they are taking the risk home to their families: "One of Allison's biggest concerns when she realized what was happening to her was 'What's going to happen to my family?' . . . She got them out of town."
To compound matters, it is unclear whether people who recover from the disease can still pass it on. Even after Dr. McGeer is released from hospital she will remain isolated for several days.
One fear nagging doctors is that some people may develop only mild forms of SARS and not recognize they have the disease, yet still be infectious, Dr. Low said.
So far, there is more evidence suggesting that the very sick are the "super spreaders" of SARS, who tend to shed enormous amounts of the infectious virus.