SARS signby Dr. Richard Nahas

It was the spring of 2003, and Toronto was a weird, eerie place. One of the great cities of the world was brought to its knees by a virus. It was called bird flu at first, but it was later called SARS. N95 face masks were sold out across the country, and you could see them everywhere you looked. On the streets, in subways, in shops and public places, there were masked figures in the crowds. Some were brandished with the fancy colors and logos of luxury brands. But even whimsical masks were a reminder of the fear that led to their making.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was caused by a coronavirus, the same virus that causes the common cold. The SARS virus had shut down the city. Conferences and special events were cancelled. Hotels were empty. Restaurants and malls were deserted. The city was on edge and unusually quiet. Every doctor I knew was talking about SARS, and many were nervous. There were doctors and nurses infected with SARS. The situation was not a full-blown panic, but it was certainly close. The daily news fed us new numbers to talk about every day. Number of suspected and confirmed cases of infection. Number of people killed by the virus. Number of birds, usually in the millions, slaughtered to prevent its spread.

I was working as an emergency physician at two different teaching hospitals. Oddly enough, both were shut down by the virus. Most ERs had a SARS room, where suspected cases were evaluated. Gowns, gloves, face masks and eye shields were standard issue. Sealed sliding doors and overhead ventilation kept airflow under control. But at Mount Sinai and the North York General, it was deemed that the virus may have slipped through the cracks.

A few of the ER beds were used to take care of other patients, but for the most part we were on quarantine. Patients were diverted to other hospitals and ER staff were reduced to a minimum. The halls were dimly lit, making it feel like a perpetual night shift. Entire wards were cordoned off, the doorways and halls sealed with plastic wrap. The quiet was nice at first, but it soon got a little bit creepy.

It was in this setting that I joined the SARS team. A friend called me one day and said they needed doctors to help look after hospitalized patients with SARS. The Centers for Disease Control had been brought in from the US, and they helped the Toronto team during the day. Evening and weekend shifts needed to be covered, and there were no doctors willing to take the job. This was risky business, but these were exciting times. I am not a fearless person, but I have always been drawn to the eye of the storm. I said yes.

For the next few months, my friend and I shared a pager. With the Toronto SARS unit now based at the Sunnybrook Hospital, we were called in to assess suspected cases and admit them to hospital if needed. We also handled problems for the nurses taking care of those admitted with SARS. When we went in to examine patients, we wore a space suit with air pumped in from a vent in the back. We traded stories in coffee shops, during pager hand-off.

I saw the movie E.T. as a child, and I remember the scenes where the scientists came and took E.T. away. They poked and prodded, they frightened him with bright lights and scary machines. As these patients looked nervously into my eyes, peering out at them through a thick glass helmet, I had this odd feeling of self-doubt. I knew I was one of the good guys, but in that spacesuit I felt like I was the alien. Some of those patients were colleagues. Some of them died. The entire SARS experience was a thrilling one for me, but it was hard. And as it turned out, it changed my life forever.

That is because of what we learned about the people who died of SARS. What we learned was that the virus was much more deadly in people with diabetes. I remember seeing this data for the first time during morning rounds one day in late 2003. It sent chills up my spine. Similar findings were reported on 520 SARS patients in China. In that group, those who died were six times as likely to have diabetes as those who survived. 16759303

Here was a disease that was the quintessential viral epidemic. It was assumed that those who died, died of SARS. But it wasn’t just the virus that killed them. Something about their diabetes made them weaker. Their chronic illness made their immune system less effective at fighting the virus. In part, those people died because of their diabetes. In the words of Louis Pasteur, who created vaccines and developed the germ theory of disease, “it is not the germs we need worry about, it is our inner terrain.”

Sometimes we can only fully understand the path our life has taken when we look back on it. A few months after my SARS job ended, I was on a plane with a one-way ticket to Brazil. I had sold my car, parted ways with my girlfriend and put all my possessions in storage. I told the chief of ER at both hospitals that I was taking a leave of absence. I was going to see the world.

Some of the reasons were obvious. I had always been drawn to travel and adventure. After twenty years on the treadmill of school and work, I wanted to take some time to do something on my own. And after a decade in the pressure cooker of Ivy League Medicine at the University of Toronto, I needed to let off some steam. I had also received a mountain of hazard pay, which helped me pay off my student loans and gave me enough to live on for a year or two. I felt lucky to have an opportunity to experience an epic journey, and was bold enough to seize it.

Underlying all of these factors, I felt pulled to something. Years before, I had an arabic word tattooed on my arm. The word al mustaqsi is a spiritual term that is loosely translated as ‘The Seeker’. I had always been interested in life’s big questions, and after years of study in the noblest profession at one of the world’s greatest centres of learning, I was still seeking. More specifically, I wanted to know how we get sick and how we heal. I wanted to know what the great sages and the hidden masters had to say about the mind, the brain, the soul and the body. I was looking for answers. About life, the universe and everything.

As a medical doctor, I was trained in the science of disease. But what the SARS epidemic taught me is that the disease is only half the battle. For those who got infected with SARS, death came not just at the hands of a virus, but because of a failure to cope with the damage it caused. That was a failure of the healer within. I wanted to understand this healing force. It seemed obvious that by learning how it works, and learning how to make it stronger and better, we can improve a person’s odds of beating any disease.

Modern medicine has paid no attention to this force. I was taught nothing about it, and that is because doctors know nothing about it. But as I learned from shamans and healers in over thirty countries, and during a decade of study and practice of integrative medicine, treating the healer within is powerful medicine. Now that I am actually able to use simple tools to unleash the healer within, I feel compelled to help bring this to the world. By combining this with the tools and techniques of modern medical science, the battle against any disease is much more easily won. This is the best medicine, and it is the healthcare of the future.

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