Dr. Jane Batt
Respirologist and Scientist
I remember when HIV raised its ugly head here. I have horrible memories of that. I was the Chief Medical Resident at Mount Sinai and did four months in the Intensive Care Unit at the old Wellesley Hospital at Sherbourne and Wellesley.
I saw so many young men that had been completely ostracized by society and their families. The only friends they had were each other – the gay community – and there were several of them I took care of when they were the last ones. Their friends had all died.
I had spent time with men who I had just met because I was the resident on call, and there was no one for them to talk to. There was nothing we could do for these men. They were dying. People were terrified of their illness.
I remember that vividly and how wrong that was. I vowed never, ever to walk away from a sick person regardless of what they had. And maybe that’s why I work with tuberculosis – I don’t know, it’s just something that has stuck with me.
SARS was also interesting. You weren’t infectious unless you were symptomatic and so it didn’t spread as easily. Because of that it was localized to Toronto. I was finishing off a post-doctoral fellowship at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and it was arranged for me to travel to the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg (a level 4 containment lab where viruses are studied) to do some work to work with the tuberculosis organism.
I vowed never, ever to walk away from a sick person regardless of what they had.
When I arrived, I went down to the cafeteria with the scientist I was working with. He told me, ‘I’m not sure if you know this but a lot of people were anxious about you coming from Toronto. Look at how many people have left the cafeteria since you came down.’
And it was true – people had left. There were pockets of fear around SARS – and they were vocal about it.
With COVID, I worry very much about what’s happening with our young people. The young have been horribly harmed – I don’t mean by COVID-19, but by isolation and it bothers me that we didn’t start talking about it until recently.
Probably because I’m a mom, I have three of my own and I know how difficult it can be. I think once you’re a mom you think of every child as your own, you know?
I worry about cohorts of the population that have been hit particularly hard. We don’t know what COVID-19 and being isolated has done to them, but we will know as the years roll by.
You know what I will remember the most about COVID-19? How terrified people were. And what I’ll remember is walking from Union to the hospital in The Path and seeing people literally hugging the wall because they didn’t want to be close to me. You could see the fear in people’s eyes. If you said hello, people jumped.
These people didn’t feel like we were all in this together. They felt like they were alone.
We’ll get through this. Because we live in North America, hope is embodied in who we are. We know it can be better tomorrow because we have everything we need to make it better.
Dr. Jane Batt is a Respirologist at St. Michael’s and a Scientist in the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science.
As told to Ana Gajic. Photos by Yuri Markarov. This interview has been edited and condensed.