HCMC driving force puts bodies on the line in Covid fight

By Thu Anh   July 27, 2021 | 10:27 pm PT
HCMC driving force puts bodies on the line in Covid fight
An ambulance at the HCMC Covid-19 Resuscitation Hospital in Thu Duc City, July 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.
Overworked and constantly exposed to risk, ambulance drivers in HCMC are putting their bodies and lives on the line every day as they transport Covid-19 patients.

Moved by the pain on the face of a Covid-19 pregnant woman about to go into labor, Hong Do Thanh Nguyen focused on doing his best to get her to the hospital as quickly as possible.

The 41-year-old ambulance driver turned on the siren and the flashing lights and dashed away with priority lights flashing.

He put aside all emotions and remained calm and focused as the sped through the streets from the Thu Duc General Hospital in Thu Duc City to the Tu Du Hospital in District 1, a distance of more than 10 kilometers. Almost 15 minutes later, the woman was taken to the Center for Obstetrics and Gynecology to deliver her baby. It was the night of July 16.

While waiting for his colleague to take the patient inside, Nguyen changed into new protective clothing and sprayed disinfectant in every corner of the ambulance. The phone rang. It was the team leader at the Thu Duc General Hospital called. He told Nguyen to immediately pick up another group of Covid positive patients and take them to two field hospitals in Thu Thiem New Urban Area, District 2.

During that 12-hour night shift, Nguyen made seven trips, transporting more than 30 infected patients to different Covid field hospitals in HCMC. Two days ago, he and seven colleagues had used four ambulances to transport 300 Covid cases from different districts to the

Thu Duc General Hospital, around the time when local officials of Thu Duc City "separated" the city into two areas and used one to set up Covid-19 facilities.

"In mid-June, there were days I transported up to 100 patients in one shift," Nguyen said.

Hong Do Thanh Nguyen during a trip to pick up Covid-19 patients. Photo courtesy of Nguyen.

Hong Do Thanh Nguyen on a trip to pick up Covid-19 patients. Photo courtesy of Nguyen.

At that time, Thu Duc City was recording hundreds of new infections every day. At 6:30 a.m., Nguyen would already be busy picking up Covid-19 patients from the wards and bringing them to the dormitory of Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, which had been converted to a field hospital.

He still remembers a day when, after an early start, the hospital asked him to bring six other patients to the Cu Chi field hospital, around 50-60 km away. When he arrived at the other hospital, he didn't even have time to drink water or catch his breath before several wards in Thu Duc City called in to report more positive cases that he had to transport right away.

As he was about to end his shift, he started having his "lunch" at 7 p.m., having driven continuously for 12 hours. He chose a road in Cu Chi where there were no houses to pull over, sat down under a tree, opened a lunch box to eat.

"It was really tiring. Even though I felt a bit lonely eating alone, I was happy that no Covid-19 patients were left behind," Nguyen said.

Hong Do Thanh Nguyen eats his food on a side of the street. Photo courtesy of Nguyen

Hong Do Thanh Nguyen has his food on the side of a street. Photo courtesy of Nguyen.

Ever since the fourth outbreak began in late April, Nguyen has been to almost all Covid-19 treatment hospitals in various wards and districts in HCMC.

Just like Nguyen, the working schedules of his colleagues have also been packed. Over the past two months, they have been working non-stop, day and night and have driven tens of thousands of kilometers transporting patients.

Even though their work is hard, they always adopt the position that those suffering the most are the patients and the doctors.

They believe that if each ambulance driver tries a little harder in getting the patient to the hospital sooner, they will have a better chance of survival and the doctors will have less critically ill patients to take care of.

Tran Minh Tan, 49, an ambulance driver with District 11 Hospital, has also worked non-stop since the Covid outbreak. He and four other drivers drive two ambulances and are on duty 24-7.

The team is in charge of picking up both patients needing emergency services, and confirmed cases and first generation infections to the District 11 Hospital under the coordination of 115 Emergency Center. Since the team receives tasks from both ends, the drivers are overloaded often.

To minimize the time confirmed Covid-19 patients stay in the community, Tan and his colleagues arrange for about 10 asymptomatic Covid patients with mild symptoms to share the same ride. But the team prioritizes receiving and transporting patients with severe conditions that require oxygen and ventilation in order to begin treatment as soon as possible.

Tan's wife is also a medical worker who is participating in the fight against the pandemic; and they understand the other has to go through every day. To fully commit themselves to their work, the couple have had to leave their children in the care of relatives.

"It's very, very stressful, but we have to try our best," Tan said.

Nguyen’s biggest concern is his mother, who is nearly 70 years old. She is sad and worries about him constantly. He has explained many times to her that he is fully vaccinated, always wears proper protective gear, is tested for Covid-19 regularly.

Seeing her son leave early and come home late at night with his clothes drenched his sweat, her heart goes out to him. She always prepares his favorite dishes these days. He scoops some rice into a bowl and eats alone in a corner. Mother an son communicate in a "remote talk" mode.

The work of ambulance drivers does not look like easing anytime soon. Some field hospitals and Covid-19 treatment in Ho Chi Minh City are short of ambulances. On average, field hospitals collect from 600 to thousands of asymptomatic Covid patients or those with mild symptoms every day. However, each hospital only has 1-2 ambulances, which are already operating at full capacity.

More than three months into the new wave, Vietnam has recorded community infections in 62 of its 63 cities and provinces.

HCMC has the highest number of infections, 74,855.

To deal with the situation, on HCMC Chairman Nguyen Thanh Phong has assigned the municipal health department and the 115 Emergency Center the task of mobilizing all ambulance resources at public medical facilities. The city is also mobilizing private medical facilities to support the medical sector use their ambulances and drivers to transport Covid-19 patients.

Nguyen knows what is in store for him and his colleagues at this point, but he is okay with it. "As long as I have the strength, I will try to transport the patient quickly and safely."

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