Sheela Basrur was just five feet tall, with a build so slight that it seemed like a strong breeze might carry her away. But by the time she died of cancer yesterday at the age of 51, she had helped forge a new conception of who a hero could be.
"Don't be fooled by her size," Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said recently. "She's tough when she needs to be - a regular Mighty Mouse."
There was an irony to Dr. Basrur's death: She was a doctor who had become one of the best-known public-health officials in Canada, only to have her own life cut short by disease.
"We are saddened by this loss," Mr. McGuinty said yesterday. "She was a remarkable woman."
Dr. Basrur's date with history came in 2003, when Canada's biggest city was hit by the SARS virus.
As Toronto's chief medical officer of health, she found herself on the front line of a terrifying public-health battle. The world watched as she led the fight against a mysterious ailment that would eventually take 44 lives; some feared it would turn into a far-reaching plague that could kill untold numbers.
As the crisis grew, Dr. Basrur emerged as an unlikely Churchill figure, using her exceptional communication skills to fight the forces of hysteria and reassure the public, even as the death toll mounted.
"Her grace in the face of tremendous pressure will never be forgotten," Ontario Conservative Party Leader John Tory said yesterday after Dr. Basrur's death was announced. "She earned the respect and admiration of all Ontarians ... for the extraordinary leadership she displayed."
Dr. Basrur died early yesterday afternoon at the Grand River Regional Centre, in Kitchener, Ont. Her death was the final act in a long-running medical drama that began in November of 2006, when she went in for an examination after a pain in her lower back turned excruciating. The pain, it turned out, was caused by a tumour on her spine. Although it was quickly removed, that was not the end of Dr. Basrur's problems - she was diagnosed with hemangiopericytoma, a rare vascular cancer that spread throughout her body.
Through her illness, Dr. Basrur displayed the toughness and clear-eyed optimism that had served her so well during the SARS crisis. Asked about the cancer that would end her life, Dr. Basrur once compared it to being handed a bouquet of thorny roses - "a gift wrapped in barbed wire" - and said she chose to focus on the petals.
"We have ultimately, entirely and only ourselves the ability to choose where we want to shine our light," she said. "I choose to shine mine on those that are the gifts and the joys and the rose petals in my life, and when I do that, I see gifts in abundance."
Toronto Mayor David Miller heaped praise on Dr. Basrur for her leadership through the SARS crisis. "We have lost an extraordinary Torontonian, a woman whose incredible wisdom and boundless compassion helped guide our city through some of its most difficult periods in recent history."
Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman said Dr. Basrur had emerged as a natural leader. "She was the one that lifted us up on her shoulders even though she wasn't that tall," he said. "For a little person she proved to be awfully mighty."