Vietnamese doctor describes New York horror amid pandemic

By Pham Chieu   April 2, 2020 | 04:38 pm PT
Vietnamese doctor describes New York horror amid pandemic
Trang Phuong Trinh (second from right) and colleagues. Photo courtesy of Trang Phuong Trinh.
A Vietnamese doctor working in the U.S. reveals things are horrific at her New York-Presbyterian Hospital as it struggles to cope with Covid-19.

Trang Phuong Trinh, 30, said things changed dramatically in March in New York City, which became the epicenter of the novel coronavirus, and working at the hospital was like "going to the battlefield."

She and her husband, also a doctor, and colleagues all share the same anxiety and helplessness as Covid-19 claims lives right before their eyes. 

In early March, when Covid-19 was yet to make an impact, she and her husband went on a cross-state road trip. At her hospital, everyone was talking about the disease but were not worried much. But things started to change 10 days into her vacation.

On the day New York reported its first case of Covid-19, Trinh and her husband saw numerous emails from the hospital exhorting staff to maintain personal hygiene.

Two days later a super spreader was identified in New Rochelle on the outskirts of the city. Trinh felt a chill after reading about it and began to fear he could have infected a lot of people.

As the number of infections began to surge, Trinh continued to receive emails from the hospital instructing when to use an N95 mask and when to use a regular mask. Besides, the hospital stopped putting hand sanitizers in dispensers, and Trinh found it strange because there was usually plenty of stock. It turned out the contents of the dispensers were stolen by patients and visitors and the hospital was running out of it quickly.  

The hospital also ordered the cancelation of all meetings and lectures with more than 25 attendees and required doctors on leave to declare where they went or plan to go, and to stay at home if they had any symptoms of illness.

On March 10, when Trinh and her husband returned to work, the number of infections in New York had increased to 173. They had walked right into a Covid-19 storm.

Things soon started spiraling out of control as the number of cases doubled every three days and all hospitals in the city were overloaded.

A ventilator shortage began to loom, even at Trinh's hospital, which had 100 of them.

She witnessed a scene where a child had to move to another hospital to make room for Covid-19 patients, and could not control bursting into tears.

A shortage of medical staff meant the government had to call retired doctors back to work and field hospitals were set up everywhere. Trinh said New York hospitals looked at the overcrowded hospitals in Italy and began to fear the same thing would happen there.

Her hospital announced it was running out of personal protective equipment, and limited the number of staff entering patients’ rooms.

In the beginning doctors wore a new N95 mask when examining each patient. Soon masks became extremely scarce, and each doctor was given only one disposable mask disinfected with antiseptic solution and instructed to reuse it until it became dirty.

In the past reusing a mask was unthinkable, and in fact anyone caught doing so would be punished.

"But at the moment all those rules mean nothing," Trinh said.

Patients' family members were not allowed to visit to prevent the virus from spreading. Many people had to see their father, mother or husband on Facetime; some did not even know when a relative died because the hospital could not contact them.

Trinh was heartbroken to witness patients suffocate to death when their lungs could no longer supply oxygen to the body and there were not enough ventilators. Family members could not meet them one last time or hold funerals because of the ban on gatherings.

The city was forced to bring refrigerated trucks to carry the dead away and the increasing number of deaths every day caused the morgue to be overloaded.

Women had to deliver babies on their own without their husbands to support them to avoid transmission.

Workers from various sectors were mobilized to assist general and emergency healthcare personnel. Many of them were physically exhausted and often had to stay at home. Medical students in their final year were graduated early to be able to treat patients at hospitals.

Being on the frontlines in the fight against epidemics, doctors like Trinh always live in fear of spreading the disease to their loved ones.

"My friends had to go down to the basement, sleep in another bedroom or go to a hotel. If anyone had children, they were sent to stay with their grandparents, and they didn't dare visit their children. Since my husband and I both are doctors, we had already realized that if one us got infected and other will also get infected."

She said doctors scrambled to write wills, especially those who had children. The joke about writing "If something ever happens to me, get a new wife" seemed less funny now, she said.

Trinh's mother-in-law bought all kinds of vitamins and forced her and her husband to drink, and every day she provided them with food though she only dared to leave it outside their door.

Some of her colleagues were advised by their family to quit work and return after the pandemic died down, but no one dared do that because of the responsibility they felt toward patients and colleagues.

Trinh said the city and state now put all their trust and hope in hospitals. Restaurants and food delivery services have begun to provide free meals to doctors who show hospital IDs so that they can focus on their work. Shoe and clothing brands also offer their products to health workers.

Trinh is deeply motivated when the whole city applauds and cheers first responders and medical personnel at 7 p.m. every day. She sees people stand in the balconies and clap loudly.

She and her husband worry about the possibility of being infected. Her mother-in-law has been visiting them every week, though only standing outside and looking at and talking to them through the window.

"Yesterday she asked to come in and my husband said: 'Mom, you must not get infected now. If you get sick, you will be in hospital alone. And if they have to choose, the doctors will surely use the ventilator on younger patients because their chances of survival are higher. If that happens because I passed it to you, I will never forgive myself.' After hearing that, she agreed not to come in."

The death toll in the U.S. has crossed 5,800.

As of Friday morning, Vietnam had recorded 233 infections. The latest discharges raise the number of Covid-19 patients released from hospitals in Vietnam to 75.  

To date, the Covid-19 pandemic has claimed more than 53,000 lives in 204 countries and territories. 

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