Peking University, May 1, 2020: On the eve of Lunar New Year in 2020, the novel coronavirus with a diameter of only 60 to 140 nm opened up the Pandora’s magic box and unleashed a public health crisis in Wuhan, the hardest hit Chinese city by COVID-19. A wave of extreme uneasiness quickly loomed over everyone’s state of mind since the spread of the epidemic was incredibly rapid and discreet.
On January 26, the first medical team of Peking University People's Hospital rushed to Wuhan and participated in the treatment of patients contracted COVID-19. I happened to be on duty at the hospital on that day, and I saw my brave colleagues off as they were preparing to stand on the front line in Wuhan to fight against the epidemic. Their determination and bravery made my heart flutter, and then I decided to join the battle when I was informed on February 2 that another batch of medical teams would be formed soon.
My wife took initiatives to help me pack luggage and bought disposable items that might be useful. On February 6, I received a phone call from the hospital, "This is a formal announcement from the hospital. You will set off tomorrow. Please gather at the hospital at 7 a.m. and remember to gather up your belongings tonight."
It was 5 o’clock in the morning by the time I left my house. The weather outside was cold and dark when I embarked on my way to the hospital.
On the morning of February 7, 110 members from the third batch of medical teams quickly assembled. Prior to our departure, Jiang Baoguo, president of the Peking University People’s Hospital, boosted everyone’s morale with rousing remarks. "Members and fighters! Today, we will be going to Wuhan to fight against the epidemic! We must win and make sound contributions to our people! Are you ready?" The unanimous response “Yes!” from doctors and nurses was the loudest cheer I have ever heard in my entire life.
The third batch of medical teams from Peking University People's Hospital
On the way to the airport, I received countless messages from colleagues and friends. Messages like "Take care, bro!", "Wishing you come back safe! ", and "Please protect yourself!” were crowding up my WeChat. They were being extremely supportive and I was, for once in my life, so strongly brimming with ambition, strength and power.
As I was looking down at the sea of clouds below me from the plane, I thought of my father. When the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in China in 2003, my father, as the head of his department, rushed to the front line on the first notice and took charge of the imageological diagnosis of patients. I remembered witnessing this when I was 13, and thus hoping to become someone like him, a white-clad warrior who saved the lives of many. My father had passed away before he could see me dress in the same white gown he once did. But it did not matter, because I had never felt so close to him as I did then. I was determined to do my father proud, and more than ready for the long-awaited battle ahead.
At 3 o 'clock in the afternoon, we arrived in Wuhan. Walking out of the eerily quiet airport lobby, I was greeted by a piercing wind. It was the first time that I had ever been to Wuhan, and it was also the first time that I had felt such bitter, chilly air.
On the way to the hotel, there were no other cars or people on the street. Through the windows of the residential buildings we passed by, not a single moving figure was found. The whole city seemed to have stopped living. It was hard to imagine the once bustling metropolis had turned into a lifeless ghost town in such a brief amount of time. Everyone felt nervous in the overwhelming ominous atmosphere.
After arriving at the hotel, our whole team immediately received emergency training. We were introduced with details regarding the conditions of the medical wards and given updated information about the patients. We also received training on personal protection and precautions.
Medical workers receive specialized training
Before I went to bed at night, I opened the window for ventilation. The air was damp and chilly. I was shuddering as the bitter wind pierced though my skin.
The battle begins
On the next day, our team visited the newly established ICU at the Tongji Hospital. When we arrived, the team leader and the hospital support staff were still busy making final adjustments to the medical equipment and the information system.
Immediately, everyone on the team was busy with their respective tasks: doctors were managing the medical record system, while nurses were busy inspecting medical instruments and checking the drugs. We were all busy carrying out our duties to prepare for the impending battle ahead. It took only 24 hours for the ICU to be fully prepared for incoming patients!
Doctors familiarize with medical instructions and the medical record system
Around 10 p.m., the first incoming stream of patients started arriving at the ICU, signaling the beginning of our battle. I recall entering the changing room prior to their arrival and having to wear protective clothing, gloves, shoe covers, goggles and face shields. Everyone on our team made sure to check up on each other for any misplacement or gaps in our safety equipment. Once having put on the entire outfit, immediate discomfort started to arise from every part of my body: the sealed glasses were placed tightly around my eyes, creating impaired vision due to the foggy lenses; the tightly fit goggles exerted unbearable pain and pressure on the bridge of my nose; my hands were tightly bound by five layers of gloves, making it difficult to even extend or flex my wrists; and it was hard to breathe through normally when wearing the airtight masks. It became evident to us all that the following days at the hospital would be challenging.
In order to enter the contaminated zone, we had to go through four buffer zones and five protective doors. For safety, the team members made sure we entered the ward in separate groups at once.
The first door, the second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth. Tension was building up with every door that was opened in front of us.
When the last door was closed behind us, I stood for a few seconds attempting to breathe calmly, and meticulously scanned the scene in front of me, looking for patients that were in an urgent need of treatment.
Liu Zhongdi (right), author of this article, works in the contamination zone
More and more patients started to cram up outside of our unit as our shift progressed. Patients who were diagnosed and have already registered were directed to different wards according to the severity of their illness. Doctors and nurses cooperated with each other, making arrangement orders and collecting medical records. We ensured that symptomatic treatment was given on time to each patient and every person had their needs met when requested.
The first group of patients that arrived made a lasting impression on me. They were all in critical condition due to their pre-existing chronic illnesses and many of them were elderly patients with severe damage to their respiratory and circulatory systems. When consulting their symptoms, many of them mumbled. Since most of them spoke in a dialect, communication was difficult at first. I remembered clearly during training that medical professionals were advised to maintain a certain distance from the patients, but during consultations, the doctor-patient seating distance, patients’ dialect and mumbled responses combined made it difficult for me to make sense of what they said. I had to ask several questions over and over again, at times even closing up to the patients to listen. The entire routine eventually proved to be highly emotionally draining, and it was devastating to hear similar accounts again and again of how patients were tortured by the novel coronavirus.
Four hours passed quickly, and with the blink of an eye my shift had come to an end. As I was getting off my shift, it dawned on me that I had completely forgotten about the discomfort I initially felt when I first put on my protective gear. After I took off my gear, I noticed that my inner layers were all wet, and the wetness brought touches of coldness to my skin when exposed to the fresh air. When the foggy glasses were finally taken off, the area around my eyes swelled up immensely, and my nose bridge and cheeks were left with deep indentations on my skin. Stinging pain was felt all over, especially on the areas where the protective gear was tightly bound on my body.
A dynamic Wuhan returns
Through continuous and valiant efforts, many patients began to make slow recoveries and eventually succeeded in leaving the hospital with their health restored. Patients started discharging from the hospital on February 21. It was definitely a hard-earned milestone accomplished by the collective efforts of everyone working at the medical unit.
I often had flashbacks to times when a few patients were newly admitted to the hospital. Initially, they were hopeless and terrified for the uncertainties ahead. As they made gradual recoveries, they started becoming optimistic and smiled more often, which left a deep impression on me and made me more aware of the responsibility I had as a doctor.
The work went on like clockwork, and before I realized, the last day of February quickly approached within the blink of an eye. I was turning 30 on March 1, and I spent my birthday on the front line combating COVID-19 with my fellow colleagues. In the past, I usually made self-deprecating humor claiming that I was an old millennial. Now, instead of making fun of my age, I felt an enormous sense of honor to be one of the young medical professionals in the battle against this epidemic. What was more exciting to me was that on March 15, 14 days after my birthday, Chinese President Xi Jinping replied a letter to the post-90s generation in the medical corps of Peking University and extended sincere greetings to the young people working on various positions to prevent and control the pandemic. As a member of this age group, I was lucky to receive a reply from President Xi and it was an honor and a privilege to be recognized and encouraged by him!
In his letter, President Xi encouraged us to thrive in serving the people, strive to improve our skills through hard work, and develop our capability with practice. As a medical worker and a millennial, I am bound by my duty to serve my country and the people with my knowledge and skills. While I was working in Wuhan, I was frequently touched by the friendship that existed all around me. Whether it was between the medical team members, or between patients and medical staff, everyone made sure to always look for the silver lining in times of darkness. Over the course of my time in Wuhan, I took notice of the little things that mattered, and I was constantly reminded of how united China has become when we were all fighting the same battle.
As the weather in Wuhan started to get warm, I saw the early cherry blossoms on the side of the road every time I went off to work. I did not know exactly when they started to blossom, but just like when silver linings appeared in dire times, new life always emerged when least expected. Before we all realized, spring was arriving and transforming the city of Wuhan gradually into a lively, cheerful, and resilient city we once knew.
Being a doctor was my dream since childhood. In all the years I have been wearing a white coat, I have never felt so proud to be a white-clad “soldier”! After returning to Beijing safe and sound on April 6, the memories of my time in Wuhan are still lingering.
About the author
Liu Zhongdi, an M.D. holder and attending physician, is working for the Trauma Rescue & Treatment Center of Peking University People's hospital. Dr. Liu is engaged in the clinical treatment of severe trauma, bone and joint injuries, as well as other trauma cases. Dr. Liu also teaches and carries out research on relevant fields.
Translated by: Rose Li
Edited by: Liu Xin
Source: Peking University People's Hospital, Peking University Health Science Center (Chinese)