"I Was on the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Outbreak in Wuhan": A Doctor Shares His Story
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he current COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of people from all walks of life, from the U.S. to Europe to Asia.
And there at the very front lines are the nurses, doctors and other healthcare providers who are bravely fighting the virus through the care they are providing to their patients.
Dongchen Zhou, M.D., is one of those brave people.
The 40-year-old cardiologist from the First Affiliated Hospital, Medical College of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, joined a team of 400 doctors from Zhejiang who traveled to the center of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province, on February 14 to serve on the frontlines.
In addition to their invaluable medical expertise, there is another essential tool that healthcare providers like Dr. Zhou need to do their jobs safely and effectively: the right protective gear.
Johnson & Johnson mobilized quickly to help meet this need in China, donating 1,000,000 masks, 100,000 articles of protective clothing and 100,000 pairs of protective glasses to help keep Dr. Zhou and other healthcare providers safe while working in Wuhan. To date, the company has provided over $3.7M in personal protective equipment to frontline health workers.
It's just one example of a long legacy and deep commitment to helping support healthcare workers around the world, which dates as far back as the 1900s, when the company helped play a key role in preventing the spread of the 1918 flu by introducing the epidemic mask.
We asked Dr. Zhou to share his story of what it was like to be at the very front line of the outbreak, and how personal protective equipment helped him do what he does best—care for patients.
Dr. Dongchen Zhou: At first, I never imagined that I would go to Wuhan. When I got the call asking if I would volunteer to join a team of doctors to go to the frontline, my wife was hesitant to let me go. We have a 12 year old and a 5 year old, and if I left, she would have to care for them on her own.
But I had to do my part as a doctor. I thought to myself: If the frontline isn’t safe, then nowhere is safe, so I must go. Also, I figured that my specialty in cardiac electrophysiology might be useful to some of the patients there.
I was part of the fourth group of doctors from across China to be sent to Wuhan to help with relief efforts. On the plane, some of us were excited, some were nervous. I felt calm because, 17 years ago, I had done my internship during the SARS epidemic, so I had experience in this kind of situation. There was one thing we kept saying to ourselves and others on the way to Wuhan: No matter what, you have to protect yourself. Just protect yourself and others.
What It's Like to Work in a Coronavirus Ward
We packed ramen noodles and sausages, extra clothes, electric blankets and hot water bottles. We had heard from those that went before us that there wouldn’t be enough food, that the beds would be so cold you wouldn’t be able to sleep. But our conditions were actually much better than we expected. By the time we arrived, an entire hotel had been rented for us and there were boxed meals every day. Everything had been prepared for us.
We were sent to Wuhan Union Hospital Oncology Center. There were 13 wards and 1,000 patients there. We worked with the same patients each day, but in rotating shifts. One day you’d be on the day shift, and the next you’d be on the afternoon shift, and the next day you’d be on the overnight shift.
At the end of the day, we'd return to the hotel, pick up our meals and take them back to our rooms to eat alone. It was quite lonely, so I'd call my kids every night and do a short video chat with them.
In the ward, protective equipment and clothing was in short supply at first. We had brought some of our own and our hospitals sent us with some as well, but it just wasn’t enough. When we ran out of hospital scrubs, we started wearing patient hospital clothes instead.
Even when I was talking with my colleagues, I had to always wear a mask. I worked in Wuhan for about a month alongside many colleagues whose faces I never saw.ShareDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
It takes a really long time to prepare yourself for working on the ward. In the beginning it took us an hour to put on all the gear—gloves, goggles, masks, protective clothing. At each step, we had to make sure there were no exposed areas. And once inside the ward, we had to inspect each other’s protective equipment every 30 minutes.
During our eight-hour shift we couldn't eat or drink. And when we were in the patient ward, we couldn't use the bathroom because leaving the ward takes a very long time, and removing all the protective clothing safely takes almost as much time as it takes to put on.
Every single step has to be taken carefully because it is so dangerous—your protective clothes have the virus on them and you can easily be infected. Or the person next to you taking off their protective equipment could infect you. So you have to take off each piece of protective gear under supervision.
Even when I was talking with my colleagues, I had to always wear a mask. I worked in Wuhan for about a month alongside many colleagues whose faces I never saw.
Caring for Coronavirus Patients Physically and Mentally
In the beginning there were 60 patients on our ward, some as young as 20 and others as old as 80.
Each day we would assess their condition, see if any changes were needed to their treatment plan, and order any further treatment. For those in very serious condition, we needed to conduct many tests and take measures to help them.
We had an intercom system set up so we could communicate between the patient ward and the administrative room. Outside of the ward, we’d work on paperwork, updating medical histories, ordering tests and discussing patient treatment. These are tasks we couldn’t really do in the ward because our glasses kept getting fogged up and it was impossible to see clearly.
The patients were often in poor mental health because they'd been isolated for so long. They struggled with stress, anxiety and depression. We talked with them and tried to ease their anxiety, tailoring our approach to each patient because everyone was handling the experience differently. Each of us had our own way. I tried to come at it from a medical standpoint, explaining their condition and helping them understand that, even if their condition wasn’t improving, it was actually a positive development that it wasn’t worsening. We'd also give them fruit and other foods to try and cheer them up.
I never asked the patients about their families because some of them had lost family members to the virus already. But if they talked about their family members, we tried to get in touch with them and help them connect.
I remember something I read online and an expert said, 'Besides the danger of being infected by your patients, the biggest danger could be your colleagues.' That’s why the face mask is so important.ShareDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
There’s one patient I’ll never forget.
She was an elderly woman and kept on saying she wanted to go home. I told her that her health was still not stable and we couldn’t discharge her because she could infect someone else, especially family members. She told me she wanted to find her husband, who she hadn’t seen in more than a month. She didn’t have a phone number for him, and she didn’t know where he was. She reminded me so much of my own grandparents, who were so dependent on each other in their old age.
We found her son’s phone number and asked him about his dad, but he told us he didn’t know. Finally, we found out that her husband had passed away the month before. We called her son to inform him and he told us he already knew his father was dead, but he was trying to keep his mother from finding out. We didn’t dare tell her the truth. She was later discharged from the hospital and went home. I don’t know what happened to her.
Looking Toward the Future
A few days ago, our hospital ward was finally closed and all of the patients were discharged to go home. We didn’t lose a single patient, and none of my colleagues were infected. I’ve now been moved to another hospital in Wuhan to continue working. I don’t know when I’ll be going back to Hangzhou to be with my family.
I never could have imagined just how contagious this virus is. As healthcare professionals, it is extremely important to isolate from each other and wear the kind of protective gear that Johnson & Johnson helped provide.
I remember something I read online and an expert said, "Besides the danger of being infected by your patients, the biggest danger could be your colleagues." That’s why the face mask is so important.
During our evening shifts, there was more downtime to chat with each other and we talked about how we were looking forward to visiting each other when the virus outbreak was over—so we can finally see each other without our masks on and enjoy a meal together.