Vietnamese flight attendant survives quarantine

By Pham Huyen    March 24, 2020 | 08:31 pm PT
As she tucked the last items into her suitcase, Pham Huong couldn’t help but shed tears. The worst scenario she thought of was being quarantined at hospital for a month.

Huong landed in Vietnam aboard an empty flight on the evening of March 3. With the suspension of most international flights, this was her last trip until at least the end of March.

As an air hostess, Huong was not quarantined after being thoroughly checked for temperature and other Covid-19 symptoms like coughing, and filling out the medical declaration form. Reassured, she headed home and prepared for her trip with friends to Buon Me Thuot, a Central Highlands town, on March 5. Flight tickets and hotel rooms were already booked for this exciting trip, in time for coffee flower season.

On the afternoon of March 4, Huong began coughing and experienced chest pains despite not having a fever. Born with a strong immune system, she rarely falls sick despite her demanding schedule. Her profession however requires contact with hundreds of individuals on a daily basis, increasing the possibility to be infected with the novel coronavirus. Not at ease, she immediately dialed the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases 2 in Dong Anh District and was advised to mentally prepare for quarantine.

Rearranging her holiday suitcase into a hospital kit, tears streamed down Huong’s cheeks. She felt devastated because the planned trip to Buon Me Thuot was a rare opportunity to travel with her busy friend and she felt so lonely without her loved ones. Huong spent the next hour consoling herself while waiting for the medical team.

Pham Huong (middle) during quarantine period.

Pham Huong (middle, with a white mask) during the quarantine period. 

In the emergency wing, Huong signed herself into the hospital since her family lived abroad. After completing the paperwork, she was placed in a negative-pressure room for isolation and tested for Covid-19.

At the hospital, she was constantly monitored, checked for temperature, and provided with three meals per day. The menu changed daily. "When I was working I always forgot to make time for meals, but at the hospital eating became scheduled and habitual. That's good," Huong said.

Days passed until "Patient 17", who lived next-door, tested positive for Covid-19. "Patient 17", Nguyen Hong Nhung, who boarded Vietnam Airlines flight VN54 from London and landed in Hanoi on March 2, was confirmed Hanoi's first Covid-19 infection and the country's 17th on March 7 after the country had 22 clean days.

That evening, the hospital erupted into chaos as the number of possible cases steadily increased. Huong switched rooms six times within four days after her Covid-19 tests had returned negative for two consecutive times. The quarantine, however, must last 14 days. In every room, Huong spent time to wipe down, tidy up then unpack and repack her suitcase only to move again two hours later. One time, a staff member knocked on her door at 3.30 a.m. and ordered her to move within the next few minutes.

In spite of the messy situation, Huong never complained a word. Instead, she felt sympathy and respect towards doctors and nurses who worked overtime to accommodate dozens of patients arriving every night.

"What I remember most is a doctor who was guiding me to another room telling me that he and his colleagues too, wanted to burst into tears. I know a medical attendant who stayed back after dozens of potentially infected patients checked in that night. The sacrifice of doctors and hospital staff during this time is significant and must be recognized by society," the flight attendant said.

Huong spent March 8, International Women’s Day, in her sun-lit room with friends she had made, thinking everything was fine. To her dismay, she was once again instructed to move and make space for incoming patients. Along with her roommates, she packed up and spent the next few hours waiting for an ambulance heading to North Thang Long Hospital, also in Dong Anh District.

Tension weighed in the air as everyone was tired from constantly moving within a short time period. At the sight of her assigned bed in a mixed-gender dorm-style room of 20 people, Huong let out a sob. Previously, she had been used to having her own space, arranged to stay at fancy four and five star hotels during her work shifts. The limited and humble medical facilities and lack of rest triggered an emotional breakdown.

Looking around, however, everyone, from overseas students to state employees to workers, were submitted to the same conditions. The flight attendant motivated herself with positive thoughts and quickly regained her composure. She then scrubbed the toilet, mopped the floor, and tidied her room to ensure her living space was as clean as possible. After a few days of organization, the hospital rearranged and placed patients into single-gender dorm rooms.

Pham Huong kept herself occupied during her quarantine with hobbies like flower arranging, reading, singing, and dancing. She also kept up with her business whilst in there.

Pham Huong kept herself occupied during quarantine with hobbies like flower arranging, reading, singing, and dancing.

"A day here isn’t long and dragged-out as long as you are filling it with productive activities or things you never get the chance to do," Huong said, considering the time perfect to master meditation.

Ever since Huong was quarantined, she adopted a healthy lifestyle and spent her free time reading, exercising, and playing sports with other patients. Everyone at the hospital loved and engaged in kicking about a shuttlecock.

She also put to use her crew dancing experience by gathering other ladies for practice every afternoon. From these sessions spawned small yet lively performances for quarantined patients, security staff, doctors, and nurses. Through these art performances, Huong hoped to engender a nurturing and optimistic atmosphere at the quarantine zone and inspire others to think and act positively in this difficult time.

Huong and her friends borrowed traditional dresses, ao dai, from a dance crew for their performance in the middle of the quarantine hospital yard.

"This experience was truly enlightening, I learned that human adaptability is endless and that we can cope with and thrive under the most arduous circumstances," Huong said.

As an air hostess, she was constantly on the move and was accustomed to long-haul international flights and not once had she stayed in one place for over a week in the past years.

But Huong’s biggest fear was facing everyone and their criticism after her discharge. Many of her roommates and fellow patients abstained themselves from notifying family, friends, and colleagues in fear of ostracism.

Upon learning that Huong was quarantined, her neighbors reserved unkind remarks for her, even though her quarantine was a voluntary decision.

Huong said the most important asset one can possess walking into the quarantine process is a strong and stable mentality because those 14 days can feel much longer than ordinary days. She insisted it was not an enjoyable nor fun experience but a necessary one.

"The hospital bunk bed will not be comfortable like your bed at home, laundry will not be as clean, and the food will not taste the way you like. You will not have the freedom to run around and do whatever you want since the quarantine area is ultimately designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and accommodate other patients."

In the afternoon of March 17, clutching her discharge papers in one hand and her suitcase handle in the other, a masked and gloved Huong walked a long distance from the hospital entrance to hail a cab to avoid rejections. 

Once home, she unpacked her things and prepared yet another ‘quarantine’ suitcase just in case.

Pham Huong has been a flight attendant for an international airline since 2015. At the moment, she is taking some time off due to the effects of the novel coronavirus outbreak and flight suspensions.

Pham Huong has been a flight attendant for an international airline since 2015. At the moment, she is taking some time off due to the effects of the novel coronavirus outbreak and flight suspensions.

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