The Fight Isn’t Over Yet — The Harrowing Experience Of A Doctor On The Frontlines

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The pandemic came at a time when everyone least expected it.

After all, humanity was entering a whole new century of technological and medical advancement. But it came, deadly and swift, showing no mercy to those who contracted it.

We spoke to a young doctor from the northern region of Malaysia. Despite her busy schedule, this optimistic lady paused to give us some insight to what’s going on in the front lines.

Whatsapp screenshot of conversation with a doctor
[My conversation with S.]

This is her story…

I was born and raised in Kuching, Sarawak. I relocated to north Malaysia to work as a Junior Medical officer. Since the pandemic, I’ve been taking care of the wards with my colleagues.

It’s strange really.

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that a pandemic would occur in our lifetime.

I had studied the history of pandemics in med school and learned how some of the deadliest epidemics wiped out parts of the world’s population.

It feels like we are living out a movie called Contagion — where a seemingly innocent virus spread extremely fast through the means of modern travel and poor hygiene.

It just never occurred to me that an actual pandemic would become a part of our everyday lives.

I remember hearing about it in January when the airborne respiratory disease was first declared as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the WHO.

It was then I realized that things would only get worse from here on out…

[Image via Jabatan Imigrasi Johor]
[Image via Jabatan Imigrasi Johor]

Then came the call of duty

I was selected by my Head Of Department to serve as at the frontline soon after and to my surprise, I took the news rather calmly.

I guess we, my colleagues and I were already mentally prepared for it, especially after we heard of the first case in Malaysia.

These days, I work on a rotational basis.

My colleagues and I work on 12 hourly shifts for 3 continuous days and then go on standby mode for the next 4 days. We also take turns doing day and night shifts.

There are days when the chaos never seems to end. On those days, you see so many admissions that it becomes alarming.

Your heart just aches to see the patients in fear and agony. It’s disheartening because we’re all battling a new and unknown disease.

And the patients, they fear for their lives, they worry about their loved ones. They just want to go home but here they are, stuck in the mercy of our hands.

Every time we need to go in to see a patient, we have to wear full PPE (personal protective equipment). When we come out, we have to change from head to toe before proceeding to go for a bath.

It’s extremely HOT and uncomfortable with all the protective gear and you will be drenched in sweat in less than 5 minutes. Think of it as going into a claustrophobic sauna for hours upon hours.

And to be honest, we currently do not have enough PPE supplies so much so that some departments had to make their own.

[PPE face guards. They are disinfected right after being exposed to a patient.]
[PPE face guards. They are disinfected right after being exposed to a patient.]

My family was worried sick

Working as a frontliner is one thing. Breaking the news to my family members was another thing altogether.

It took me about 2 whole days before I broke the news to my husband. He freaked out and kept bombarding me with endless questions.

I remember seeing his face then, he almost cried.  It hurt to see him in so much pain.

He kept fearing the worst, so I proposed for him to move back to his parent’s place, just in case I too got infected.

But he was adamant about staying put. In fact, he said these very words, “I will be here with you in body and soul. I will not leave you. I need to be with you. You need me too. I will take care of you and that is a promise.”

This reminded me of why I fell in love with him in the first place. Swoon.

Because of my odd working hours, my husband has become my very own MasterChef. He’s been constantly making sure I am well fed.

And to release my stress, he even offered to let me cut his hair.  I did and gave him the worst haircut of his life. When a guy lets you ruin his hair, then he’s truly for keeps ladies.

Fish, prawns, broccoli, mussels.
[My husband knows his way around a kitchen.]

My parents are extremely worried. Mom prays for me every night without fail before she goes to sleep.

While I am grateful for her prayers, I am truly sorry for causing both my parents to worry so much, especially in their old age.

The new norm

It’s funny but life has a way of showing us who’s boss. We’re all at the mercy of our Maker now.

Seeing how fragile life is makes me more appreciative of the people around me.

I see the kindness in strangers who donate food to healthcare workers and the poor.

I see the bravery of the families of those who contracted the virus.

[Image via Jabatan Imigrasi Johor]
[Image via Jabatan Imigrasi Johor]
I see the determination of other frontliners who work tirelessly to help in whatever way they can.

Every minute spent with my family is one to be savored, even though they may just be video calls. I even reached out to friends whom I had lost contact with just to ask “how are you doing?”

You never know when it’s going to be the last time you talk to them.

With the MCO being lifted in stages, we need to be more careful than ever. The chain of the spread needs to be broken completely, because we haven’t quite reached there yet.

And even when we are allowed to go back to work or school, we should all be prepared to live a different kind of lifestyle from now on.

So until a cure or vaccine is found, our lives will be dictated by how effective our stance on social distancing and hygiene is.

It’s not a pretty picture but it’s the truth.

The fear and the stress of a frontliner

I am truly grateful to have a bunch of great colleagues from various departments. They all make work more tolerable.

And I mentally keep telling myself to trust in my PPE to keep me safe. While it’s extremely uncomfortable, it’s also my shield and fortress. It’ll be every doctor’s new normal for a very long time.

Doctor wearing PPE holding a sign saying "I stayed at work for you!"
[That’s me in the picture]
I remember all the patients that I discharged. The joy and relief on their faces? Priceless.

There was this particular female patient who was in extremely bad shape. She had to be intubated and it seemed like she was never going to see the light of day.

The thought of dying all alone in the ICU without a loved one by your side is just heartbreaking and scary.

She couldn’t talk with the tube down her mouth and we could see the fear in her eyes.

I think we were all mentally prepared for the worst — but thank goodness she recovered and was finally transferred out of ICU. When my colleague and I informed her that she could finally be discharged, she was so overjoyed!

Imagine coming back from the brink of death and getting a second shot in life. The feeling is unexplainable.

She was so ecstatic that she went around thanking every patient in the ward as well as the doctors who treated her.

I’ve also had to bid farewell to colleagues who have been deployed to Hospital Sungai Buloh and Hospital Umum Sarawak under very short notice to serve at the frontline.

And there are friends who work in the Emergency Department who are being quarantined as we speak. They were exposed to patients who tested positive.

I don’t know when I’ll get to see them again.

Be safe. Be smart. Be kind. And be honest. 

People at home can play their part to fight against this pandemic. Please verify any news you read, to help stop spreading fake news.

When you come to us, please, always be honest. It is disheartening to see my colleagues and friends who had to be quarantined just because one person lied about their symptoms and contact history.

Please know that we are here to help you. We also want you to go back to your family, safe and sound.

We know how you feel because we too have a family to get back to.

So as we all brave through this storm of uncertainty, let us do our part to #stayathome for the frontliners who too, are doing their part in fighting tooth and nail to cure those infected by the pandemic.

Till then, let us not lose hope, let us fight on. We will certainly prevail.

For more stories like this, read: 3 Short Stories From Malaysia’s Essential Workers And Frontliners

and The Doctor Will See You Now: 5 Reasons Why Doctors in Malaysia Are Being Overworked.

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