Discharged Czech patient praises Vietnam’s ‘professional and humane’ pandemic fight

By Viet Dinh   April 6, 2020 | 06:10 pm PT
Czech man Michal Kocian, 51, who contracted Covid-19, is impressed with the care he received and amazed by Vietnamese hospitality and kindness.
Michal Kocian (C) poses with the staff at Cu Chi Field Hospital in HCMC as he is discharged, March 30, 2020. Photo supplied by Michal Kocian.

Michal Kocian (C) poses with the staff at the Cu Chi field hospital in HCMC as he is discharged, March 30, 2020. Photo supplied by Michal Kocian.

On March 14 Kocian was in Ho Chi Minh City when he started developing symptoms. He went to get tested and was diagnosed with the disease. After 17 days at a medical facility he was discharged on March 30. He speaks about his experience in Vietnam.

Medical authorities said you had been in contact with an Italian citizen back in the Czech Republic. Do you think that's the source of infection?

I landed in Ho Chi Minh City on March 10. Yes, the Vietnamese authorities stated that after two investigatory interviews with me. But I would like to specify that I’m not really able to say where exactly I was exposed to the disease. I did not directly meet any Italian, but some of my friends had gone to Italy for skiing. So that could be the case. However, it is just an assumption because nobody close to me was positive.

Why did you decide to go to a hospital for a Covid-19 test?

On the second day after arrival I wasn’t feeling good. I developed chills, headache and overall weakness. I took painkillers and was a bit better the next morning. Then I read an article about Tom Hanks and his wife in Australia. They were having the same symptoms and tested positive. The article concerned me though I did not have any of the typical symptoms described in the media at that time (such as fever and respiratory problems). I was supposed to return home in two days, and so just to be sure I decided to get tested before the flight. I did not want to take the risk of infecting anybody else on board or getting everyone quarantined because of me, because such things had happened recently in Vietnam.

I looked up a list of hospitals and found an article about newly developed rapid tests by the Vietnamese. I assumed I’d go to the hospital for a test, get a negative result in a few hours, and safely fly home the next day.

Did you meet any difficulty during the examination process?

The first place I arrived at was a hospital with a big sign outside, saying they process tests there but do not take samples. There was a security guard, who asked me what I need. I pointed at the sign, and when he understood that I wanted to get tested for the coronavirus, he ran inside his booth and gestured me to another nearby hospital around the corner. So I went there, and there were really nice staff who took care of me.

After I explained the situation, that I wanted to get tested before the next day’s flight, they made me do a lung X-ray. Afterward we went back to the doctor’s office to do all the paperwork needed. Then suddenly a phone rang. A nurse answered the phone and a second after she hung up there was nobody but me in the room. Ten minutes later a man wearing a protective suit came back and handed me another suit. That moment I realized my X-ray did not go well. I put on the suit and within 30 minutes an ambulance arrived to take me to the Hospital of Tropical Diseases, where I was finally tested for the coronavirus. I was accommodated while waiting for the results which were to come back the next day, Saturday. The next morning medics came to me and confirmed the test was positive.

Besides being tested positive for the virus, I was also told by clinicians that I had double (bilateral) pneumonia. As it happened I suddenly started to feel really sick. That Saturday I also developed a high fever. I was deeply thankful that I was not on the airplane at that time, not for my sake but for the sake of other passengers.

The doctors gave me antibiotics via an intravenous drip, and then I was interviewed twice about my stay in Vietnam from arrival until the time of hospitalization. Then I was transported by an ambulance again to the Cu Chi field hospital 70 km from Ho Chi Minh City's center, where I was hospitalized until the end of my treatment.

Michal Kocian is transfered to Cu Chi Field Hospital for Covid-19 treatment, March 2020. Photo by Michal Kocian.

Michal Kocian is transfered to the Cu Chi field hospital for Covid-19 treatment, March 2020. Photo by Michal Kocian.

One of Vietnam’s key measures to fight this pandemic is strict isolation of all potential patients and disease carriers. Do you know how many people were isolated because of you?

A friend told me that, according to the media, as many as 200 people contacted authorities by themselves. The media informed people about me with my name and photo, and told everyone who met me to contact them. Twelve medical team members I was in contact with in the first hospital had to be isolated, the entire staff of the hotel where I was staying and many other people. For example, a woman who brought me my personal belongings had to go under isolation as well because of me.

I went to the hospital with just my passport and wallet. When I had to stay there, I had absolutely no belongings with me. Luckily my friends from the Czech Republic have their family in Vietnam. They sent a woman to my hotel to get all my stuff and bring it to me by a taxi, for which I am truly thankful. She too volunteered to be quarantined just because she brought my suitcase to the hospital. Such responsibility is just staggering and I admire it.

A lot of other people who are in quarantine texted or called me afterward. They all kept their fingers crossed for me, which was very positive and nice. I expressed my gratitude and apologized to them. In a situation like this, when many people’s lives have become complicated because of you, their approach is just so nice and encouraging.

How was your health and what was on your mind during the time of treatment? 

When they discovered bilateral pneumonia, of course, my first reaction was shock. Then I became really sick. I got fever, chills and overall weakness. For the next three days I slept almost 20 hours a day. When you wake up with no appetite at all, and you are not strong enough to raise your hands or stand up or go anywhere, and your breath is heavy, you feel really down. On one hand, one is glad to be in a hospital, but on the other hand, you do not know if it is enough.

My health condition was so bad that I started thinking about my unfinished business at home. That was the hardest time, so I would just try to sleep through it. I would say the antibiotics started to be effective after about three to four days when my condition started to improve slowly. The following week everything seemed much more optimistic.

Please elaborate on your feeling about somehow ending up in Vietnam, a foreign country.

The worst thing was that I had to lie alone in the room. For the first few days there was nothing but the bed. I started to ask myself, ‘What if my health condition worsens? If I need a ventilator, does the hospital have it?’ The situation felt even more difficult because of the language barrier. I asked them in English many times, but received no answer. That was hard. I could not get any information. To every question about my condition they just shrugged their shoulders, and I did not know what they meant or if they just did not understand me. After about four days I found out they had ventilators in the building. Hurray!

So how did you communicate with the hospital personnel, given that not many of them could speak English well. Any help from the Czech embassy?

I stayed in touch with the Czech embassy, and they were just amazing. I really want to thank both the ambassador and the consulate director very much, because besides the doctors and the whole medical team, these two helped me a lot.

At the same time a lot of people were offering me help: for example, a Vietnamese tour agency which arranged my accommodation here, an insurance company with their Vietnamese representatives who were in touch with the hospital. Later I had more people interpreting for me. Only the first few days were quite hard because I could not really inform anyone; there was no time for it. Later, when my condition improved, there were not many crucial things to translate any more.

Later I found out that one of the employees could speak English. Everything was suddenly better, especially because I knew who to ask and I was able to get answers for my questions more easily.

The Vietnamese medical staff were certainly kind, diligent and very caring. Even though they could not really speak English and did not understand me, they always asked me if there was something they could do for me by using basic English phrases, which was amazing. In addition, over time I connected with a doctor who spoke English very well and a soldier with whom I was finally in contact the most.

He was in basic military service in the complex, supporting the medical teams. He was constantly asking me if I liked the food or if there was anything he could do for me. In the first few days I did not eat much; I was not hungry. But the soldier was supplying me with huge portions and he was still asking me if I wanted anything else. One day I asked him if he could get me some fruits. He immediately brought me a whole basket and continued to bring fruits every day.

I also communicated with the staff by phone when I needed something, e.g. painkillers or fever reducing pills. I had not planned to stay in Vietnam for that long, and so I ran out of credit on the local sim card. Some employee bought me credit and paid for it. I still have not found out who it is until today. On leaving the hospital, I asked whom I could pay for all the fruits and credit, or if I could do or buy anything for them. They kindly declined everything, and nobody took a thing from me. This amount of hospitality despite the language barrier was incredible. I invited them to the Czech Republic and hopefully some of them will come.

What was the difference between the role of the soldier and the medical staff's?

The medics took tests for the virus every morning in addition to the treatment itself. It was very positive that I knew the virus load in my body was decreasing every day. In addition to that, there were a number of other daily activities in the hospital from tidying, mopping, changing bed linen, and bringing food. These especially were done by soldiers. The one responsible for my area spoke English very well and had also learned Russian in the past, and so I could refresh my Russian vocabulary. What we could not communicate in English, we did in Russian.

When I was leaving he was a bit offended because I did not recognize him. I actually saw him for the first time without a protective suit or helmet. He only had a mask on. Generally, all the people near me were carefully protected. Only doctors approached me closely because they had to. Others remained at two or three meters from me. Everyone had enormous regard for the disease, so everybody was taking it seriously. This probably contrasts most with the situation in the Czech Republic, where according to online news, doctors and medics do not have enough protective equipment, and so everyone including patients are at great risk. Apparently, Vietnam is much more prepared, probably from earlier experiences with epidemics, which never really reached Europe.

Were you happy with the quality of Vietnamese medical care?

The people’s approach and efforts to help me were just fantastic in all aspects. The Cu Chi field hospital is a beautiful complex situated inside a vast military area, just like in a movie. There are two-story buildings and enormous rooms with one patient in each of them. The hospital probably has a big capacity, so apparently Vietnam has really prepared for the pandemic. 

The treatment I was getting after testing positive seemed to be very effective. Every morning I was getting antibiotics intravenously, and in the evening some intelligent antibiotics, which proved to have done well in China. About the medicines they used, they probably chose the best available at the moment. About the double pneumonia I was suffering from, the cure was quite fast without further complications. Certainly I am very happy about this, so as a patient I would like to highlight the hospital’s very professional approach.

If I judge a book by its cover, especially by the buildings of the first two hospitals, I would not be happy to get treatment there. But the approach and facilities in Vietnam are apparently top-notch. And finally, I also got a new ventilator in my room, and so it was clear that Vietnam had invested in technical equipment to prepare for the pandemic.

An area of Cu Chi Field Hospital in HCMC, March 2020. Photo by Michal Kocian.

An area of Cu Chi Field Hospital in HCMC, March 2020. Photo by Michal Kocian.

How are you getting home after being discharged given that international flights from Vietnam have been suspended?

You are right, almost all airlines have canceled their flights to Vietnam. The country has also banned entry for all foreigners. So now I am trying to figure out my departure with the help of my embassy. Perhaps, I will get on one of the repatriation flights to Europe. The Czech Republic was one of the first countries (if not the first) arranging repatriation flights for its citizens, also offering empty seats to other European Union citizens, so hopefully they will reciprocate.

What impressed you the most in Vietnam’s pandemic fight?

Perhaps the biggest impression I get from this is the fantastic approach of Vietnamese society to the disease. They are afraid of the coronavirus but at the same time they face it responsibly and with discipline. Even without knowing their language, I did not notice a similar mood in Europe, especially in terms of assessing what the government is doing and what measurements are being taken. I could see a disciplined response to the new regulations, people staying positively tuned and doing everything to stay collectively protected. I just find it truly nice.

I think this is perhaps the biggest difference between our cultures, and I would like to express my great admiration for Vietnam. It is likely they will face similar social and economic problems as we do in Europe. So their approach, their respect for the law and the attitude they use to overcome all difficulties are extremely important. Everything they do they do to benefit society, with a bigger mission and national pride. These are really encouraging and it gives people a special energy. Another example is the support of the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic to our paramedics I read in the media. And now I truly believe they do it selflessly from their own beliefs.

On the other hand, exaggerated individualism and resistance against rules in our European culture will probably make it much more difficult to overcome these challenges. I think, we’re losing track of social motivation and the overall bigger mission. We see every restriction as an interference in our rights. But the disease does not care about this, it does not respect borders, and it all depends on us, on how we deal with it. But to not conclude on a negative note, I still see lots of people in the Czech Republic trying to solve the situation and help the others, even from over here. They share their reserved goods, help with shopping for elders, buy medicines and give away masks or donate to various funds from their own savings, etc.

I would love to thank and highlight the work of the people who helped me here and took care of me in the hospital. Based on my unplanned and truly deep experience I would like to honestly appreciate their professional and humane approach.

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