Vietnamese engineer recounts grim battle against Covid-19

By Hai Hien   July 21, 2020 | 03:00 am PT
Stranded for six months in Bangladesh after going there on a business trip, Nguyen Quoc Toan also contracted the novel coronavirus.

Early morning one day in the middle of July Toan folds his blankets and steps outside to catch some sun.

After spending eight days in the emergency room with oxygen therapy, the man who feared he would die of the novel coronavirus can now enjoy the summer breeze back home in Vietnam.

"In the last seven months I have experienced many things and realized that life is strange and beautiful simultaneously," the 42-year-old engineer says.

Born in Hanoi, he now lives in Saigon's District 4 and works for a project funded by the Bangladesh government and the World Bank.

After the Lunar New Year in January, the chief consultant to the mechanical engineering team left for the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, hoping to return to Vietnam on February 28. But a visa issue caused him to miss the return flight, which was then postponed to March 26.

But that did not go too well either.

In late March the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Bangladesh, and the government decided to impose a lockdown to contain the pandemic. On March 26, the day of his flight, the country suspended flights to all countries except the U.K. and China.

Toan's group, which had four people in the beginning, grew larger after 11 more Vietnamese from construction sites across Dhaka came. The 15, comprising three women, shared a 250-square-meter apartment.

Without enough beds in the four-bedroom apartment, some had to sleep on the floor. Stranded, with no idea when they could come return home, and anxiety due to the raging pandemic stressed some of them out, and arguments and conflicts broke out constantly.

Toan, understanding that people were worried because they did not know when they could return to Vietnam, tried to comfort his fellows but also told them to stop fretting to reassure their families. After the first week things got better as they realized they had no choice but to put up with the hardship.

Toan works out on the rooftop while being stranded in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Quoc Toan.

Nguyen Quoc Toan works out on the roof of his house while stranded in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Quoc Toan.

Dividing themselves into groups of three to five people to cook and clean, they bought gloves, protective clothes and face masks for those going out to shop. They went to the supermarket once every four days. When there was too much to carry, they would rent a trolley to bring the stuff home.

Toan was working and reporting to his manager, and spending time reading and working out. Every day he would exercise looking at a YouTube video and jog on the roof, and urge his housemates to join.

The rooftop quickly became their favorite place as they worked out and watched planes fly in the sky, nursing their dreams of returning home.

After more than 100 days they were told there would be a flight to Vietnam on July 2. But the good news from the Vietnamese embassy was quickly replaced by bad: Covid-19 had arrived at their apartment.

On June 24 one of the group got a fever. Within five days 14 or 15 of them had Covid-19 symptoms like fever, body ache and tiredness.

"We did not think we could be infected since we were taking serious precautions," Toan recalls.

They bought medicines, made soup to be given as comfort food, used homemade herbal steam baths, and took care of each other.

The fever vanished after two days, giving them reason to believe it was just the flu.

At 10 p.m. on July 2 they were taken to Dhaka airport in protective clothes.

Toans group prepares to come home on July 2, 2020. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Quoc Toan.

Nguyen Quoc Toan's group prepares to leave for home from Bangladesh on July 2, 2020. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Quoc Toan.

Toan, following his long journey from Dhaka to Van Don International Airport in Quang Ninh Province in northern Vietnam and transfer to a quarantine facility in Thanh Hoa Province, almost passed out of dehydration.

The next morning medical workers came to take their samples for testing. On July 5 the results came, and 14 of them had Covid-19.

They were taken to the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi immediately. That night Toan felt his body ache, and he struggled to breathe. All he could eat was soup.

The next day doctors decided to put him in the emergency room as his oxygen level was too low.

"You must breath on your own to increase your oxygen level," they told him.

Doctors and nurses were around him that night, but the machine indicated that his oxygen level went too low every 10 minutes.

The doctors told him to get down on his knees and lie face down to breathe, but the exhausted Toan could not remain in that position for long.

"You must try, you must breathe on your own."

"I can only kneel, I have no energy," he complained.

The next morning he felt better, but doctors told him his lungs were severely damaged by an acute complication caused by the virus.

"You have to try to eat no matter how tired or uncomfortable you are," they told him explaining he had to keep his strength up.

Toan is getting better after spending several days in the emergency room. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Quoc Toan.

Nguyen Quoc Toan recovered after spending several days in the emergency room at the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Quoc Toan.

Toan, despite his constant headache and 39-degree Celsius fever and sometimes bloody sputum in the mouth, never skipped a meal.

After three nights without sleep, his condition got better. On July 15, after eight days of fighting with death, he could finally be taken off the ventilator and discharged from the emergency room.

After losing eight kilograms in 15 days since contracting the disease, he tested negative for the first time. He was so happy that he began to write poetry, something he had never done before.

He had been speaking with friends and colleagues around the world, and they had constantly encouraged him to fight the deadly virus.

He now wants to spend more time with his family, especially his two young daughters. He plans to meet and thank all the doctors and nurses who helped him get well when they can finally discard their protective clothing for good.

"The most valuable thing we have is not a mountain of cash or a massive house, it is our health and the safety of our family," Toan wrote on his Facebook page, saying the Covid-19 infection and the hardship he suffered made him realize those things.

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