With hospital memories haunting them, battle not over for many Covid survivors

By Long Nguyen, Thu AnhOctober 24, 2021 | 04:45 pm PT
With scenes from their hospital stay, including the death of fellow patients, haunting them, Covid-19 survivors face mental issues besides stigma and distrust from others.

Nguyen Huynh Vi and her five-member family returned home from a Covid-19 field hospital in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Chanh District in early Oct. after battling the disease for nearly three weeks.

But what she heard in the hospital has not stopped haunting her: the screams of patients struggling to breathe, children crying, doctors’ voices urging people to breathe at any cost, and the sound of ambulance sirens.

On many days she had to take sleeping pills as she battled sleeplessness and anxiety.

"My husband is still in the hospital, and I am worried he would die or my children and I would be reinfected, I could not stop thinking about those scenarios," the 35-year-old Hoc Mon District resident says.

She is hardly alone in remaining traumatized after recovering from the disease.

As of Monday, Vietnam has recorded more than 803,000 recovered Covid patients since the beginning of the pandemic.

A doctor holds hands and talks with a Covid patient in HCMC, Sept. 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A doctor holds hands and talks with a Covid patient in HCMC, September 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A report published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal in the U.K. in April analyzed the health records of 236,379 recovered Covid patients, mostly in the U.S. and found 34 percent had been diagnosed with neurological or psychiatric illnesses within six months of recovery, suggesting the pandemic could lead to a wave of mental and neurological problems.

For many people the mental health sequelae is due to the fact they have witnessed first-hand the death of fellow patients or even loved ones while in hospital.

In Binh Tan District, Nguyen Van Hai, 63, was discharged from a hospital after nearly a month. But his 59-year-old wife could not make it.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hang, his daughter, says: "He cried almost every day and did not want to eat. Whenever he heard ambulance sirens he panicked and sometimes screamed".

After returning home her father stayed in his room for days and did not talk to other family members, she says.

"The doctor later gave him tranquilizers to help him sleep better".

Tri Thi Minh Thuy, a volunteer and psychotherapist from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities who provides counseling and mental health support to patients at the hospital, says the most unfortunate are those who lost loved ones to Covid, which drives them to the point of mental breakdown.

In Hoc Mon, Vi’s mother has also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being discharged from a field hospital.

"My mother was on a ventilator for weeks, and everyone around her in that hospital room faced the same breathing issue. She is now afraid of looking at photos or videos of Covid-19 patients with ventilators".

According to the Cho Ray Hospital survey, the chances of having mental health problems increased for patients who had to be on oxygen support or ventilators, with nearly 67 percent experiencing depression and anxiety disorders.

Mental issues can also flare up as Covid survivors face stigma and distrust from neighbors, friends and even strangers, especially when they still have persistent cough or shortness of breath, provoking fear in others.

"My housemates are polite but I know they try to avoid me when I use the shared kitchen, and my boss told me not to return to office when it reopened in early Oct.," Le Thanh Phuong, a Covid survivor who tested negative for the coronavirus in Sept, says.

Nguyen Huyen Mai of Dong Nai’s Bien Hoa Town says she could "obviously see that people are cautious around me.

"That makes me feel like I am a danger or a shame that must be shunned even though my doctor told me I do not need to be in quarantine any more."

A recovered Covid patient in Hanoi, May 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

A recovered Covid patient in Hanoi, May 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Another factor is that sickness and symptoms persist even after patients recover and test negative. This makes many people anxious and panicky, and they find it difficult to resume their daily life.

"My children still have some fatigue and cough," Vi says, and she worries their breathing might deteriorate overnight.

"That’s why I cannot sleep, I cannot help checking on them all night."

Natalie Lambert, a health researcher at the Indiana University School of Medicine in the U.S., surveyed more than 1,500 patients having long Covid through the Survivor Corps Facebook page last year and found that anxiety was the eighth most common symptom, with more than 700 respondents suffering from it, according to the New York Times newspaper.

‘Vaccine for the mind’

Taking care of Covid survivors’ mental health has received attention in the last few months.

Apart from support from their families and friends, many recovered Covid patients have formed online groups to share their recovery experiences.

Facebook group ‘F0 Khong Co Don’ (Covid Patients Are Not Alone) with more than 88,000 members is one of those.

In HCMC, the disease epicenter, a mental health program called ‘Vaccine For The Mind’ was launched to provide counseling for people with anxiety, stress and other psychological issues, especially recovered Covid patients.

To rehabilitate people after Covid , the program will help them find resources to help themselves through information about jobs, self-development and learning.

The HCMC Psychiatric Hospital has also set up a team of medics to help Covid patients.

To get rid of insomnia and anxiety, Vi has sought professional support and slowly got better. But her mother, who has refused to talk to doctors and others, is still dealing with PTSD.

Last weekend she took her mother to church for Sunday mass for the first time since the outbreak resurfaced in May.

"When we returned home, my mother got angry and cried, saying she did not feel confident being around strangers".

But Vi is not giving up, she will keep encouraging her mother to go out and get used to the new normal.

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