Covid lockdown a life and death struggle for cancer patients

By Hai Hien, Pham Nga   May 17, 2021 | 01:00 am PT
Many patients of Hanoi’s K hospital are caught between a rock and a hard place – the danger of Covid-19 and the danger of disrupted treatment.

They are desperate for the lockdown on the hospital, a leading oncology facility, to be lifted so their treatment can begin or continue.

The hospital was placed under a lockdown on May 7 after 10 Covid-19 infections were detected there.

Vietnam has been coping with a new Covid-19 wave that broke out on April 27 and has so far seen 1,205 cases in 27 cities and provinces.

Hanois K Hospital has been locked down after recording 10 coronavirus positive cases, May 7, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Hanoi's K Hospital has been locked down after recording novel coronavirus cases, May 7, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Vu Minh Tam, 46, and Nguyen Van Tuan, her husband, from northern Hai Duong Province's Kinh Mon District, are the last two remaining patrons of an inn near the K Hospital's facility in Tan Trieu Commune, Thanh Tri District.

"There will be no cure for him if we go home now and end up traveling on the vehicle with a Covid-19 infected patient. Not to mention that we will have to undergo quarantine if we go back to our hometown," Tam said. "We have decided to stay here and hope the hospital’s lockdown order will be lifted soon for my husband to continue receiving further treatment."

For the past few days, the couple has locked themselves in their room, clinging to hopes that the husband will be cured after receiving a list of medicines that the doctor prescribed a few days ago. Since his lung cancer has relapsed it is a slim hope, but it keeps them going.

After he was diagnosed with an early stage of lung cancer last year, Tuan underwent a successful surgery to remove the tumor and Tam thought that her husband was cured. Unexpectedly, that belief was dashed.

Tuan began begun receiving treatment for stage three lung cancer in mid-March. But after seven days of radiation therapy and three days of chemotherapy, the hospital got locked down. He has lost three kilograms because of the cancer treatment and his hands are always pounding on his chest, as if to subdue the storm of coughing attacks he gets.

Nguyen Van Tuan pounds his chest every time he wants to cough. Photo courtesy of Tuan.

Nguyen Van Tuan pounds his chest every time he wants to cough. Photo courtesy of Tuan.

Doctors had given him steam inhalation to help clear his throat to reduce coughing, but since the lockdown, Tam can only sit by, pat and stroke her husband's chest and back to provide some comfort. Many times, Tuan has to sleep in a sitting position because of the difficulty in breathing. All she can do is hug him, tears flowing down her face.

No clear answers

The Quynh Chi homestay facility inside the K Hospital, which has twenty rooms, is now deserted. The day the hospital was locked down, everyone frantically called the doctors to ask for help, but no one got the exact, clear answers about their treatment – the next radiation therapy session. Many returned to their hometowns.

As Tam and Tuan stay back in Hanoi because they see no other option, people have suggested that the couple switch to treatment with traditional Chinese herbs, but Tam has rejected them, saying, "You have to listen to the doctor and follow that treatment."

"I have noticed that his illness gets worse faster when we stop radiation therapy and chemotherapy," the mother of three said.

Tuan, meanwhile, suffers coughing fits every time he tried to speak.

Dao Thi Hoa from the northern province of Thai Binh feels luckier than patients like Tuan because doctors are still caring for her every day because she is in isolation at the hospital.

The 34-year-old had a total hysterectomy done in mid-April. After returning home in early May, she suffered a bowel obstruction post-surgery and had to be rushed to the emergency room. A gastric bypass was done on the day of the lockdown. Now she is busy practicing walking around and eating congee.

As per her treatment schedule, May 10 was supposed to be the first day of her radiation therapy, but this has been deferred. For now, patients have to remain in their rooms.

After staying in the hospital for more than a month, Hoa does not know what stage of cancer she has now. All she knows is that the doctor said she would be fine, just get radiation therapy. So she counts every day that passes. Every day, she whispers to her mother: "What date is it today?" The closer Hoa got to the day of radiation therapy, the more hopeful she felt. But she cried a lot when she learned that the hospital will be locked down for 21 days.

"I cried not out of despair, but because I have been waiting for too long already," the mother of two said.

The longer waiting time puts an extra burden on the peasant woman's shoulders. She has just registered herself in the list of patients who cannot pay for isolation meals and asked for support. But she is yet to be told if she has qualified for the support program or not. Two days ago, she asked for masks and milk powder at a cancer online group, since her family back home is also quarantined and there was no one left to send supplies.

Suffering alone

More than 100 km from Hanoi, on a hospital bed in Ninh Binh Province, Trinh Van Chien waves his hand and calls out for his wife at around midnight, something he does as a habit.

But then the man with liver cancer suddenly remembers that he is in a quarantine camp because he had returned from the K Hospital.

In the morning, when he receives a phone call from his wife, the 60-year-old husband cries like a child: "I am sad. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. "

Sitting alone in the house following orders from local health officials, Bui Thi Chin, his wife, also cries helplessly.

"I wonder if people are taking good care of him? What do they feed him?"

"Doctors here care for me just like doctors at the K hospital, but I have pain all over my body. I want to have a body massage, but I don't know who to call," Chien said wearily.

Trinh Van Chien (R) at the K Hospital when the Covid-19 epidemic had not broken out at the medical facility. Photo courtesy of Chien.

Trinh Van Chien (R) at the K Hospital before it was locked down. Photo courtesy of Chien.

Last October, Chien suddenly lost his appetite, and his weight dropped drastically and his ribs hurt. After getting a medical checkup, he learned that he had final stage cancer. Since then, every 23 days, the couple have traveled together to Hanoi for the husband’s chemotherapy and returned home three days after.

On April 24, he got his seventh round of chemotherapy. The first six sessions did not yield positive results, so was given a higher dose. Now he feels dizzy and nauseous often, and can only manage to consume a few teaspoons of thin congee.

Her husband’s cancer has been a huge blow for Chin’s family. On May 7, news of a Covid-19 outbreak at the K hospital caused a stir in the midland commune in Nho Quan District.

Chien's family was on the list of people who need to go to centralized quarantine camps because they’d been to the K hospital.

The next day, the local officials asked Chien to gather his stuff for being quarantined at a local hospital. After learning this, his wife cried bitterly and asked health officials to let her husband be quarantined at home. Unable to persuade them, she asked the staff to write a pledge saying they "will take full responsibility if my husband dies."

Chien turned to his wife and said: "Well, I can't live much longer. Let me go so the neighbors and the government can rest assured."

He took a few sets of clothes, put a few hundred thousand of dong in his pocket, and hopped on a vehicle. As a cancer patient, Chien has been assigned to the same room with three other patients of the same age. Their self-contained space in the hospital room is about 20 square meters, with doctors and medical staff on duty day and night.

According to the original schedule, Chien would have received chemotherapy in two days, but after the hospital was locked down, there is nothing to do but wait.

Hoa is holding on to faith, though her money is running out. She expects the 21 days to pass quickly and to receive the treatment as planned. The mother of two says that if treated promptly, she will be able to live to witness her children build a family in the next 15-20 years.

But Chien's wife is frightened that her husband does not have the strength to wait till the lockdown is lifted.

"I just want to send a message to the authorities to let my husband go home so I can take care of him. He does not have much longer to live."

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