Breathing is ‘precious,’ says Hanoi nurse after Covid-19 experience

By Thuy Quynh   April 14, 2020 | 11:32 am GMT+7
"This is pure happiness... Now I can breathe the air and talk normally, which is so precious."

Bui Thi Hanh spoke haltingly as she walked slowly, one hand on her chest.

She was coming out of the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases in Hanoi. Her sense of relief at getting a literal weight off her chest was palpable.

"Every unfortunate event happening to me has passed," she said.

Bui Thi Hanh, a nurse at Bach Mai Hospital, is all emotional as she is discharged from Hanois National Hospital of Tropical Diseases on April 10, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Bui Thi Hanh, a nurse at Bach Mai Hospital, is all emotional as she is discharged from Hanoi's National Hospital of Tropical Diseases on April 10, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Hanh, 54, is a nurse at Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital, a major hospital in northern Vietnam that became the nation’s biggest Covid-19 hotspot with at least 45 related cases.

She works at the HIV Outpatient Clinic of the hospital's Center for Tropical Diseases, and was confirmed to have contracted the Covid-19 virus on March 19, becoming Vietnam’s "Patient 86."

On April 10, she was discharged from the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases.

Her voice was weak and she spoke laboredly, still having some breathing difficulties.

"For now, it’s still a difficult task for me to catch my breath if I talk a lot. But the most severe period has gone and I’m getting better."

A team of ten doctors and eight other Covid-19 patients saw her off at the hospital.

"Thank you! All of you doctors, thank you for everything," Hanh said, overwhelmed with emotion.

In the sun-soaked front yard of the hospital, she said: "We say the hot weather makes us feel comfortable, but doctors who treat Covid-19 patients have to wear thick protective clothes all day long, and sweat pours down their glasses. They have all been working hard, really hard."

Before she tested positive, Hanh felt some chest tightening on March 11, but had no cough or fever. She was admitted in Bach Mai's Heart Institute to treat hypertension and tightness in the chest.

The day it was confirmed that she had contracted the novel coronavirus, Hanh was resting in a room for employees at Bach Mai. Another nurse at the hospital who had close contact with her was confirmed infected the same day and is still receiving treatment.

The news about their infection triggered a "chaotic" atmosphere, she recalled. The hospital immediately had to suspend several departments, started to list thousands of staffs and patients to be tested for the virus, before a two-week lockdown was imposed on March 28.

For Hanh, a nurse with 30 years of experience in the infection field who had joined the fight against the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) 17 years ago, the result was a shock.

At that time, she was still asymptomatic apart from feeling a bit tired and a fast heartbeat due to hypertension. She was immediately moved to the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases, still in her nurse’s uniform. There was no time for her to see her family.

The second day after she was admitted, she developed a fever, at 37.5 degrees Celsius. The fever got more severe in the next five-six days, going up to 38-39 degrees Celsius and she began having difficulties breathing.

X-ray images revealed some damage to her lungs.

"I was worried. I couldn’t sleep nor eat."

‘Nothing I could do’

Bui Thi Hanh is checked on by doctors at the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, March 24, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Bui Thi Hanh is checked on by doctors at the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, March 24, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

She was in quarantine when she heard that the Bach Mai Hospital had been locked down. It made her even more depressed. "I wondered if I had transmitted the virus to others."

Her entire family had already been placed in quarantine and her daughter went on to become "Patient 107," discharged a week before her mother.

"It hurt. But there was nothing I could do. It just got more and more difficult to breathe."

A few beds away from her was a foreigner. His condition worsened and doctors rushed to put him on a ventilator.

"I was scared and felt highly stressed. I am a medical worker myself and I know how serious it is when a patient needs a ventilator."

That image worked as an alarm bell for Hanh. She decided not to put herself in such a condition.

"I tried to sit up and almost crawled on the bed to put myself together. Then I tried my best to have some rice porridge."

"Though I could not feel any taste for the food, I still tried to swallow it down. If I didn’t eat, I would not have enough strength to breathe, and I might also have to rely on the ventilator," Hanh said.

Aside from forcing herself to have some food, she also tried to do some breathing exercises and avoid staying still for too long in the bed.

After a few days, she started to recover. When she finally got to contact her family and inform them about her latest condition, she found unfriendly comments that people had posted about her on the internet.

"As someone who consults with HIV patients, helping them to overcome discrimination, I had not imagined that I would be in a similar situation one day. That was painful," she said.

At 2 a.m. on March 26, Hanh was informed that she had tested negative for the first time. The news was passed on by a doctor in the dark room with a gesture that said the news was good. Hanh felt a great lightening of her burden.

A few days later, the test came back negative for her the second time. Hanh was sent to the Department of General Infection at the hospital and stayed there until she was discharged.

"One of the reasons that helped me get through such a difficult period is the care and encouragement from doctors and nurses. And it was not because I was a nurse that I was treated differently; every Covid-19 patient was treated like me," she said.

The Bach Mai Hospital, her workplace, has now been freed from a two-week lockdown and there has been no new case recorded at the hospital.

"That was such a relief for me to hear."

"I should be able to get back to work soon enough."

 
 
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