Fil-Canadian nurse who died of SARS honored

- Pia Lee-Brago -
Saluting a Filipino-Canadian nurse’s dedication to her profession, an Ontario hospital flew its flag at half-mast over the weekend after she died of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which she contracted in the line of duty.

North York General Hospital in Toronto flew its flag at half mast in honor of Filipino-Canadian nurse Nelia Laroza, 51, who died on Sunday night after battling SARS since mid-May, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Ambassador Victoriano Lecaros said yesterday.

"She is someone in my view who has paid the ultimate sacrifice," the Toronto Star quoted Ontario public health commissioner Colin D’Cunha as saying.

Laroza’s death "has hit us hard," the Toronto Star also quoted Adeline Falk-Rafael, president of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, as saying. "She is one of us. She has lost her life in the line of duty."

Falk-Rafael said Laroza’s death also adds an urgency to the current controversy in Toronto about how SARS broke out in the Ontario capital for the second time.

Laroza, who came from a big family with a long nursing background and whose own career spanned some 25 years, emigrated to Canada in 1978 and worked at the Riverdale Hospital in Toronto before moving to North York General in 1990.

She is survived by her husband Emil, 23-year-old daughter Grace, and 16-year-old son Kenneth — the Catholic school student who caused the quarantine of 1,500 high school students after he contracted SARS from his mother.

Laroza will be buried tomorrow after a funeral service at the Ogden funeral home in Toronto.

Laroza is the first Canadian nurse to die from SARS which broke out for the second time in Toronto, killing at least 14 victims after 25 others died in the first outbreak.

Laroza, along with 15 other North York General nurses, is believed to have contracted SARS from a 96-year-old patient with a fractured pelvis who was brought on April 2 to the hospital’s orthopedic wing where Laroza worked.

Laroza’s colleagues said she was a careful professional who kept her mask on and warned family and colleagues that the respiratory disease was more dangerous than most people thought.

Her death has led the Ontario Nurses Association to renew calls for the province to ensure hospitals are meeting SARS safety directives for medical personnel, reported the Toronto Star.

"Nurses believe this death could have been prevented," the Toronto Star quoted nurses’ union president Carolyn Edgar as saying.

Nurses and a doctor at North York General had repeatedly raised warnings in April and early May that a second SARS outbreak may be in the offing but these went unheeded.

"Nelia didn’t want to spread it to anybody. She was very careful with her mask and she was very worried about her family," said Laroza’s colleague Emma Gonzales. "It is hard for me to let go. I was hoping so much she would recover."

Laroza’s niece Hazel Corda said the experience has shattered Laroza’s husband. "She was his heart," Corda said.

Her son Kenneth, a student at the Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy, survived the deadly illness but only after causing some panic in school, where more than 1,500 students and staff were ordered into quarantine until June 3.

Laroza’s colleagues said she could not believe she infected her son, despite all her precautions. She would pace the floor in her isolation room, wondering how it happened.

Family and colleagues stressed that Laroza was meticulous in following SARS precautions, according to the Toronto Star.

Laroza "was very scared that SARS was a lot more serious than most people had predicted and she had isolated herself from any family gathering," the Toronto Star quoted Corda as saying. "She just wanted to make sure everyone was safe (from SARS)."

The Toronto Star reported that a friend and fellow nurse of Laroza, who had been as sick as Laroza, has recovered but did not specify if the nurse was ethnic Filipino.

Ontario public health officials have estimated that just under half the 23 SARS victims who are still hospitalized are health-care workers, and about a quarter are others who got it in hospital, the Toronto Star reported.

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