Alberta woman reflects on 10 days in Chinese quarantine amid 2003 SARS outbreak
EDMONTON -- As the world grapples with an outbreak of coronavirus, a St. Albert woman says it's stirring up memories of her brush with another deadly illness that fuelled global panic in 2003.
Kate Gale worked in China for more than 10 years, but it was a span of 10 days in April 2003 that altered her life forever.
SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, had already killed 103 people in 17 countries but there were no signs of it at Shenzhen Polytechnic, Gale's university.
At the height of an outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory system, Gale was teaching at Shenzhen Polytechnic and living in an on-campus apartment.
(Courtesy Kate Gale)
Then one day she heard a child, Mickey, crying for his father in the hallway of her on-campus apartment.
"[He] was crying piteously, and knocking on the door saying 'Daddy, daddy, let me in!'"
The son of James Salisbury, an American professor, told Gale his father wasn't letting him inside the room.
"We got security who climbed through my window and along the ledge to look into James' apartment in case he had a heart attack and needed help," she said.
Salisbury wasn't in the apartment.
Gale and others tried to comfort the boy while they searched for his father, letting him sleep over.
As western media would later report, Salisbury had been rushed to hospital with a suspected case of SARS.
Chinese authorities would come to learn Gale, Mickey and others in the on-campus housing had come into contact with a suspected SARS patient and made the decision to quarantine them.
"So we were ordered back to our one-room apartments and stayed there for the next 10 days," she said. "We had our meals brought to us on trays, which were put outside our doors. We were allowed to go to our office, which was across the quadrangle, an enormous quadrangle like Tiananmen Square."
The quad at Shenzhen Polytechnic is shown prior to the SARS outbreak. (Courtesy Kate Gale)
The quarantined group had to wear masks at all times. If Gale passed by someone, she said they'd immediately cover their faces.
"We were very obvious as three westerners," she said, adding word had gotten out about Salisbury's illness. "They'd see us coming across the quad and they would change directions."
Authorities would enter the quarantined rooms every second day to spray them down with a five per cent hydrochloric acid solution, among other safety measures.
"We were asked to drink a potion which was black, and had no idea what was in it," she said.
After about five or six days, Gale said a tragic update came from the outside world. Salisbury, Mickey's father, had succumbed to his illness.
"We were truly shocked when we heard about James' death," she said. "It brought home to us what a perilous situation we might ourselves be in."
During it all, Gale said the quarantined westerners never told their families back in Canada, but did speak with the Canadian consulate.
China was being highly secretive about SARS at the time. The disease had killed dozens in Canada and officials wanted to hear Gale's every observation.
"One of the things I very clearly remember him saying to me was 'Kate, please mention everything you observe no matter how small it appears to be, how insignificant. If it's connected to the SARS outbreak…we want to know."
She and her friends were finally cleared and freed from quarantine after 10 days and began to make arrangements to return to Canada.
(Courtesy Kate Gale)
During the 2003 outbreak, SARS infected a total of 8,098 people worldwide and killed 774, according to the World Health Organization.
Having lived through it, Gale has some advice for Canadians who may be feeling understandably anxious about the spread of coronavirus.
"Not to panic," said Gale. "To be sensible, which is difficult to do when one doesn't understand the ramifications of the possibilities of the disease."
The current outbreak also has her reflecting on her time in isolation — and how it changed her outlook on life.
"For 10 days, to have absolutely no one speak to us and literally avoid us, run away from us, was really revealing. It changed my thinking about quite a lot of things," she said.
"I never walk past a homeless person and pretend they're not there, which I might have done before, to my shame. I will look at them and smile and acknowledge their existence."