‘If not us, then who?’: Malaysian doctors overcome fear of infection in country’s battle against COVID-19
Doctors in Malaysia assigned to treat COVID-19 patients share their fears of contracting the coronavirus and bringing it home to their families. But they remain committed to the cause of reducing the number of patients in the country.
JOHOR BAHRU: Since Dr Sean Thum was deployed to the frontline of Malaysia’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, his family members have been keeping a safe distance from him.
Before he was transferred to Permai Hospital on Mar 13, one of Johor’s admission hospitals for suspected COVID-19 patients, the 28-year-old shared a room with his brother and dined regularly with his parents.
However, his brother has now been “kicked out” of their bedroom and he minimises contact with his mother and father.
“Actually my family members are quite scared of getting infected. They don’t want to be near me,” said the junior doctor.
“My parents are not that young, so the likelihood of them getting sicker than normal people after getting COVID is quite high,” he added.
Dr Thum is among hundreds of doctors across Malaysia who are being tasked to test suspected COVID-19 cases and treat those who have been infected.
As of Friday (Mar 27), Malaysia reported more than 2,100 confirmed cases, with 26 deaths.
Malaysia Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah also confirmed that healthcare workers have not been spared. However, he stressed on Thursday that none of the 80 healthcare workers contracted the disease while handling COVID-19 patients.
Health Ministry had earlier said that 47 of them were linked to wedding ceremonies also attended by participants of a religious event in Sri Petaling. Slightly more than half of the total confirmed cases in the country are linked to this mosque gathering.
Among the positive cases are some healthcare providers from Teluk Intan Hospital in Perak, which has caused disruption in daily operations at the facility.
The rapid spread of the virus has prompted some anxiety among Malaysian doctors.
As the number of COVID-19 cases across the country continues to rise, doctors told CNA they are suddenly wary of every patient walking through the door with a cough or cold.
Some added that they are still coming to terms with being forced to make quick, harrowing decisions to save not only their patients’ lives and themselves, but also their families.
A SERVICE TO THE NATION
Dr Thum said he is “well aware of the risk he faces” as he and his fellow colleagues have been exposed to people who contracted the virus.
Despite that, he sees this as his calling to help his country at its time of need, just like his favourite character, Chinese legendary warrior Hua Mulan, who went to war in place of her aged father to fight for her country.
“The men were given the imperial order to fight for their country and Mulan stepped up. Similarly, I see this as an opportunity to show how much I love my country and how much I want to serve the people,” said Dr Thum.
Other doctors shared similar optimism when they were deployed to directly handle COVID-19 patients.
Dr Calvin Koh, who is currently based in Sungai Buloh Hospital, Malaysia’s main COVID-19 treatment centre, told CNA that he had not seen his wife for several days but the sacrifice would be worthwhile.
Like Dr Thum, Dr Koh was initially stationed at Sultanah Ismail Hospital in Johor Bahru. He was transferred to Selangor last week, leaving his wife behind in Johor Bahru.
The 29-year-old is one of hundreds of junior doctors across the country mobilised to Sungai Buloh Hospital.
Doctors like Dr Thum and Dr Koh, who have completed their housemanship and obtained full registration to practise, were deployed to help test suspected COVID-19 patients and treat them.
Dr Koh told CNA that even though he did not volunteer for the assignment, he was “honoured” to do it and help treat his fellow Malaysians who have been infected with COVID-19.
“When I’m treating the patients, I’m quite nervous because the virus is contagious. But I try to focus on my work and take the necessary precautions,” he said.
“We are the next generation of doctors in this country and we have to step up. If not us, then who?” he added.
DISCOMFORT FROM WEARING PPE FOR LONG HOURS
Dr Koh also shared how wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) when working in close proximity with COVID-19 patients is uncomfortable, but a necessary shield to protect healthcare workers from getting infected.
This includes face masks, visors, gloves, gowns, head covers and shoe covers, all of which protect against the transmission of virus through contact or droplets.
Dr Koh described how he has facial creases from wearing his masks for long periods. He has to observe strict hand hygiene and is forced to take baths with chlorhexidine gluconate before and after his shifts to disinfect.
“We regard PPE as sacrosanct as it could be the difference between life and death,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dr Thum, whose shift typically lasts for eight to nine hours, said he might be forced to wear PPE for up to four-and-a-half hours straight, especially when he is testing patients for COVID-19 by taking samples from their noses and mouths.
“It’s hot, and a little claustrophobic. It’s like your body is stuck in a personal sauna and your sweat just accumulates in the suit,” he said.
Dr Thum also shared how the skin on his hands would be shrivelled each time after being drenched in sweat for hours.
“The nature of PPE is that everything has to be tight enough and stuck to your skin. It’s not the best feeling in the world, but I see it as a personal sauna session while I carry out my duty,” he added.
Dr Wilson Tiang, who also treats COVID-19 patients in Sungai Buloh Hospital, provided a glimpse into doctors' anxiety with regard to PPE in a Facebook post.
“These are running through my head: is my PPE worn properly? If I speak to a positive case for too long, will I get infected? Is my mask leaking?” he wrote.
He also recalled an occasion when his mask fell off while he was in a room with a patient. He had to hold his breath immediately, wash his hands and leave the room quickly to breathe again.
“That was a terrifying experience, and I was working for 16 hours straight. Quite tiring,” he added.
“STAY HOME FOR US”
Many doctors across Malaysia have also been posting photos of themselves, along with captions urging Malaysians to sit at home patiently and adhere to the government’s movement control order, which has since been extended to Apr 14.
Dr Thum said that while doctors and other healthcare workers like him are working hard to test and treat patients, the people “should stay home for the sake of us, for everyone’s safety”.
“We are doing our part at the hospital — we hope the rakyat (people) will do their part as well,” he said.
He also urged Malaysians to practise social distancing, good hand hygiene and good cough etiquette.
Dr Koh shared similar sentiments.
“I really hope all Malaysians comply with the government’s instructions. If they have symptoms, please make sure they seek urgent treatment,” Dr Koh said.
“We must all do our part,” he added.