On Da Nang coronavirus frontline, a doctor fights homesickness to save lives

By Thu Anh   August 22, 2020 | 03:00 pm GMT+7

Hoang Huu Hieu was resting briefly after work when his phone rang. It was his 4-year-old daughter, who hasn't seen her father in nearly a month.

"Why are you away for so long? When will you come back to me?" the girl asked, tears streaming down her face.

Hieu could do nothing but silently look back at his daughter on the screen.

He himself looks forlorn when he says: "I try not to take calls too much, because she would cry and ask to see me every time. I don't know how to end the call after hearing her cry."

Hieu, 33, is a doctor working in the intensive care unit of the Da Nang Hospital, and has been on the frontline of the Covid-19 fight since late July, when the first local case of transmission in Vietnam in over three months occurred in Da Nang.

The patient, a 57-year-old man, was later discovered to have been at Hieu’s hospital.

Soon the central city emerged as the epicenter of the country's second wave of Covid-19, which has since spread to 14 other localities and pushed Vietnam's coronavirus tally to above 1,000.

Doctor Hoang Huu Hieu wears a protective suit with his name written in the back for identification at the Da Nang Lung Hospital, Da Nang City. Photo courtesy of the Da Nang Lung Hospital.

Dr Hoang Huu Hieu wears a protective suit with his name written in the back for easy identification at the Da Nang Hospital for Lung Diseases. Photo courtesy of the Da Nang Hospital for Lung Diseases.

Hieu had been on duty on July 24 when news broke about the new case. A lockdown order followed soon for the hospital, leaving Hieu little time to bid his daughter goodbye though his home is just 10 minutes away.

He was later transferred to the Da Nang Hospital for Lung Diseases along with doctors from HCMC's Cho Ray Hospital to treat severely ill patients who have to rely on ventilators to survive.

He remembers the hours spent inside full-body protective suits, the clumsiness when he tries to move around in them and the buckets of sweat every time he takes them off.

Some medical workers even pass out in their suits due to the heat and dehydration.

"Everyone understands that the suits are the best way to protect themselves, their colleagues and patients from cross-infection, so no one really complains," he says.

What is even more daunting is the sheer number of severely ill patients, he says. Da Nang Hospital's ICU alone has had 14 of them, including several people who were either in critical condition or hanging on to their lives by using extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

In the U.S., an ECMO case typically requires eight to nine nurses to constantly monitor the patient, but in Da Nang, especially at the hospital where Hieu is, there are only four nurses on duty on every shift.

Their work is incredibly tough, considering how they have to juggle between carrying out doctors' orders and taking care of the patients at the same time, Hieu explains.

Time is relative, but even more so for the medical workers fighting Covid-19 on the frontline.

While a shift technically lasts only six hours, the constant stream of incoming patients and the relentless tug-of-war between doctors and nurses and death every time a patient's condition worsens often makes them lose all sense of time.

It is not uncommon for doctors and nurses to work way past lunch or dinner time without them realizing it, Hieu says.

"The work is hard, the time is long and the pressure is intense. The risk of being infected and being away from our families also makes everyone of us really stressed. We truly work at 200-300 percent of our capabilities out there."

Doctor Hoang Huu Hieu (L) and his colleagues pose for a photo in celebration after a Covid-19 patient gets off ECMO at the Da Nang Lung Hospital, Da Nang City. Photo by Hoang Huu Hieu.

Dr Hoang Huu Hieu (L) and his colleagues pose for a photo in celebration after a Covid-19 patient gets off ECMO at the Da Nang Hospital for Lung Diseases. Photo by Hoang Huu Hieu.

If there is one thing that brings joy to doctors and nurses in these trying times, it is knowing that a patient was saved thanks to their work, he says.

He recollects the case of a 55-year-old man who was very close to death, but managed to recover after over two weeks in intensive care.

The man held Hieu's hands afterward, thanking him and writing a letter of appreciation to all the doctors, nurses and others who helped save him.

He wrote: "I would like to thank all the doctors and nurses... for having loved their patients like their own children. I am deeply thankful to them."

Hieu says the number of severely ill Covid-19 patients has not been rising of late, and the situation is under control.

"I just hope the outbreaks are extinguished soon and all the patients recover so that I can go home and hug my child."

 
 
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