CHINA / IN-DEPTH
Frontline medical workers share unforgettable memories of a tumultuous year, express hope for a more normal 2021
Published: Dec 29, 2020 09:23 PM Updated: Dec 30, 2020 09:23 PM

Qin Chunyuan, head nurse of ICU in the Sino-French New City Branch of Wuhan Tongji Hospital, and her colleague are going to extract throat swabs for critically ill patients on February 8. Photo: Cui Meng/GT



Editor's Note:

The chaotic and eventful 2020 is finally nearing its end. But the heavy memories of the year, which saw an enormous loss of precious lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will stay with us forever. Despite struggles and hardship, we also witnessed signs of hope, elevated humanity and selfless sacrifices from our frontline medical workers around the world in the battle against the merciless COVID-19 pandemic. What touched these medical workers most in 2020? What are their expectations for 2021? Global Times reporters Lin Xiaoyi and Li Qiao talked to some medical workers who are still fighting on the frontlines in China, the US, the UK and Equatorial Guinea for our year-end recap.

Staying vigilant in the new year

"My biggest wish is that the normal life and work of the people won't be influenced by COVID-19 too significantly in the coming year," Cao Zhaolong, an expert with the department of respiratory and critical care medicine at the Peking University People's Hospital, told the Global Times. 

Cao once fought on the frontline to combat the virus in Wuhan - the city hit hard by the epidemic. 

While China has returned to normalcy to a large extent, Cao cautioned that the virus won't disappear in 2021 and advised people to be prepared to live with the virus for a long time.

"It is too early to say that vaccination can achieve mass immunity and enhance the immunity of the public to novel coronavirus," Cao said, noting that "rather than putting all hopes on vaccines, the public should stick to the basic guidelines we've outlined so far, including washing hands frequently, wearing masks, avoiding gatherings, and maintaining a safe social distance."

Cao went to Wuhan in February and was responsible for treating critical patients in the Sino-French New City Branch of Wuhan Tongji Hospital.

What impressed Cao the most in 2020 was the recovery of a critically ill patient from the brink of death.

The life of the male patient in his 40s was at stake when he was sent to the hospital. Given the risks to his condition, he was treated with modest oxygen doses, rather than an invasive ventilator or ECMO.

The man lost his father to the virus, and his mother was also infected. His wife experienced mild symptoms and was treated at the Fangcang makeshift hospital and later discharged. 

During the treatment, Cao coordinated with another ward and managed to help the man have a video chat with his mother in her 70s.  

"I was also worried that this might be the last time the mother and son would see each other," Cao said emotionally.

However, the man recovered slowly with strong willpower. "I must get out alive to take care of my family," he told Cao.

The patient expressed his gratitude to Cao through a video chat when Cao returned to Beijing. Seeing all his family members sitting together on the screen, Cao burst into tears.

"This apparently normal scene is hard-won and it makes me feel all our efforts are worthwhile," Cao said.

Although everyone was tired in 2020, especially medical workers, we must not lower our guard against the epidemic, he said, adding that the New Year is no time to relax.

Medical workers in Beijing conduct 24-hour COVID-19 nucleic acid testing at the Shijingshan Stadium amid Xinfadi market outbreak in June. Photo: Li Hao/GT



Hoping for a quick end


"I don't remember the exact date when the 'war' really started, but I do know that I only saw my family once this year," Janice Pun, a trainee resident physician in the UK, told the Global Times on Christmas Day.

"It was the 10th day after I was diagnosed with COVID-19. My parents came to my house, putting some basic necessities on the lawn for me. I talked with them from the second-floor balcony, and minutes later they waved goodbye. I could see my mother's shoulders were shaking as she departed," Pun recalled to the Global Times while standing outside the respiratory ward of a hospital in London.

The 26-year-old doctor herself got infected in July when she drew blood from a pancreatitis patient who held a negative nucleic acid test certificate but was later re-diagnosed as positive. Pun was quarantined at home and had basic treatment by herself. After two weeks of observation with no worsening of symptoms, though Pun's senses of taste and smell hadn't fully recovered, she was asked to return to work immediately.

Pun's New Year's wish is that the marathon battle against the epidemic will come to an end as soon as possible, so that people can return to normal work and start a new chapter in life.  

"What made me feel anxious and sad is that I needed to contact the families of critically ill patients, notifying them that to prevent cross-infection, the hospital allowed only one family member to come for the final farewell."

As the epidemic in the UK is spiraling out of control, the number of healthcare workers diagnosed with COVID-19 continues to rise and her hospital is perennially understaffed. 

"Fighting the outbreak has become a protracted war," Pun sighed, noting that now, instead of rushing to find solace with her loved ones via phone calls as before, she is tired of talking anything about her work. 

At present, Britain is bearing the brunt of a fast-spreading coronavirus variant. As new mutant cases have been identified, more areas of England have been put under the highest Tier Four restrictions, reports said.

Pun has participated in an investigation to analyze some associated data of novel coronavirus and underlying disease causes. As a doctor of pathology, Pun also hopes the study of COVID-19 clinical treatments keeps pace with the vaccine development in the new year.

"No matter how hard and tired we are, all we should do is to calmly focus on our role, breathe and keep fighting," Pun said.

Yearning for robust response

Hui C. Tsou, an attending pathologist working at New York Harbor Healthcare system, looked at her densely filled work schedule of 2020 which she described as one of the busiest years of her career.

"We are always in a state of emergency," Tsou told the Global Times. 

A medical worker in Boston, USA, receives COVID-19 vaccine on December 24. Photo: VCG



During the COVID-19 outbreak, Tsou was involved in the work of doctor scheduling and bed coordination at the department of veterans' affairs. "To my great regret, the technicians in our hospital's morgue have been working overtime, and there are still a large number of people who died this year," Tsou said.

Tsou believes the biggest sticking point is that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been slow in its response and still appears to be behind in its preparations for this bruising pandemic.

According to Tsou, in the early days of the outbreak, under the vague guidelines of the CDC, many doctors in New York got infected by coming in contact with COVID-19 patients without wearing masks, in order to keep sufficient protective materials and avoid causing more panic.

"Sadly, there is still a heated debate in the US about whether or not to wear masks, which has become common sense and the normal behavior in other countries," Tsou said, noting that the US government's epidemic prevention efforts didn't spend any time on the right messaging, even directly exposing ill-prepared hospitals and doctors to the frontlines.

On December 26, the US reached a grim milestone: 1 in 1,000 Americans had died from COVID-19 since the country's first reported infection in late January, CNN reported.

Tsou wishes that in the new year, the incoming Biden administration will actually fulfill their campaign commitments to give an "urgent, robust and professional response" to correct the course of the outbreak.

At the same time, Tsou believes that having general population vaccinated as soon as possible with a safe and effective vaccine is of great importance.

"Given the US is not equipped to deal with an enormous surge in serious cases, a vaccine may be the most effective weapon to end this war," she added.  

Reunion with family

"I wish the epidemic situation will continue to remain under control in Equatorial Guinea and the next batch of Chinese doctors will continue to perform free surgeries to help more poor local residents recover their sights in the next year," Chen Shuo, a deputy director of ophthalmology at the Dongguan Songshanhu Central Hospital in South China's Guangdong Province, who is now in a mission to aid the Republic of Equatorial Guinea to fight COVID-19, told the Global Times.

According to the data released by Johns Hopkins University, the total confirmed COVID-19 cases have exceeded 5,200 in Equatorial Guinea.

"Thanks to the government's prompt anti-epidemic measures and the cooperation of local residents, the number of confirmed cases here has been relatively low," Chen said.

Chen's medical team introduced Chinese anti-epidemic experience including methods of washing hands, therapeutic regimens and operation of ventilators to local people.

China has donated several batches of medical supplies, including face masks and protective suits to Equatorial Guinea.

Chen Shuo is examining the eyes of a local patient in Malabo, capital of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea. Photo: Courtesy of Chen Shuo



After COVID-19 was brought under control, the Chinese medical team organized two rounds of free cataract surgery in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, in October and November.

"It was a pity that some patients couldn't afford the cataract surgery after diagnosis," Chen said, noting that "delaying the surgery past its optimal time might cause complications, which might make the surgery more complicated."

Twenty local people were chosen to get the free surgery, with the requirement of a negative nucleic acid test result.

However, five of them could not get tested for COVID-19 by the operation day. Seeing the pain on their faces and the longing for light, the Chinese medical team decided to hold a second free clinic in November.

Happy as a child after regaining her sight, a 78-year-old grandma gave the thumbs up to the Chinese doctor.

Despite the language barrier and hug prohibition due to anti-epidemic measures, Chen was filled with joy and pride at that moment, especially as a Chinese doctor aiding Africa.

"It is a great honor for me to assist Africa in this special year, to introduce China's epidemic prevention experience to Africa, to help the local people regain their light, and to win the respect of local doctors and country," he noted.

Chen said he missed his parents and wife too much and hopes to reunite with his family in 2021.


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