Thu, May 21, 2009
Lifestyle > Health > 2009 A/H1N1 Flu outbreak

The warm hearts behind cold masks

2009-05-21 02:02:03 GMT2009-05-21 10:02:03 (Beijing Time)  China Daily

Liu Xin (right), a nurse from the No 2 infection subdivision of Beijing Ditan Hospital, wears the special protective outfit before entering the isolation ward. (China Daily/Guan Xin)

Feeling an urgent need to use the toilet is the last thing you want when you are wrapped in a heavy-duty protective suit that takes you at least five minutes to put on and take off.

The nurses working at the No 2 infection subdivision at Beijing Ditan Hospital can tell you all about it.

Since the morning of May 2, when 14 people were quarantined after coming into close contact with an A(H1N1) influenza patient, cutting down on their daily water intake has been just one of the challenges they have had to endure.

The disposable protective outfits medics must wear include an insulated anti-exposure body suit, two pairs of gloves, a mask, shoe covers and eye protection.

"Each time I peel the suit off after a day's work, it is glued to my skin with sweat," said nurse Liu Xin, who is tasked with regularly checking on the patients under observation and reporting any changes in their temperature or blood pressure to the health authorities.

As more suspected cases of the H1N1 virus come to light, more and more people are put in quarantine to stop the spread of infection among the general population.

Ditan Hospital is regarded as having the capital's best quarantine facilities and equipment, and also played a major role after the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, as well as deals regularly with cases of hand-foot-mouth disease.

And compared to the devastating SARS epidemic, Liu said the new strain of the H1N1 flu was a piece of cake.

"I would be lying if I said we are not tired, but the difference between treating SARS and this is that most people under observation are healthy, so more of our time is actually spent alleviating their psychological burden and anxiety," she said, explaining staff at the hospital had tried various ways to cheer up their charges.

"One girl was so depressed she refused to eat and drink when she first arrived," said Liu. "She would just stare endlessly out the window of the observation room. But a nurse chatted with her for almost a day and, after that, she got much better."

Their hard work has not gone unnoticed. Patient Yang Wei, who was discharged from quarantine on Tuesday, told China Daily: "I have been deeply moved by the medical staff's behavior during my three days under observation. They did more than a nurse or doctor normally would.

"They were not only concerned about my physical condition, but also took care of my daily meals and even bought newspapers and fashion magazines for me."

Dealing with foreigners has proved one of the biggest challenges for nurses. Of the 119 people so far isolated in the hospital because of their contact with suspected or confirmed H1N1 flu cases, 49 have been from overseas.

Liu said hospital staff often joked they were working at the United Nations as they have had to cope with 23 different nationalities.

Among those in observation at Ditan was an Italian couple who traveled to China on their honeymoon - unfortunately on the same flight as a suspected virus patient.

"They were nervous when they first arrived," said Liu, "so to make them feel at home we sent staff to buy them some spaghetti. They were very happy after that. Also, we would greet them in Italian, saying buongiorno instead of hello, which we picked up from the in-house translator.

"They were here for three days and when they were discharged they said they would continue with their original plans to explore China."

Although people from English-speaking countries find it relatively easy to communicate in China, patients from Japan, the Republic of Korea and other Asian nations have had to settle with using body language or drawing pictures.

"To our surprise, foreigners enjoyed this kind of communication a lot. They could feel our friendly hearts under the cold protective clothes," said Liu. "But whenever we have a new foreigner, we make an effort to put together greetings and a few sentences in their language, too."

Liu's boyfriend Zhang Ming also works on the frontline in the battle against the H1N1 influenza. He is the principal doctor for an overseas student surnamed Liu, who was Beijing's first confirmed case on Saturday, May 16.

The couple has not seen each other for three days, but nurse Liu said their situation was still better than some of their colleagues. She added: "Some staff are not getting enough time to take care of their children and parents."

As of yesterday, the hospital had discharged all but 17 of the patients under observation, with the rest expected to get the all clear on Tuesday.

"Each person, as they left the hospital, has given us a warm hug. It is the best reward for our efforts," said Liu.

One of those relieved to be out of hospital will be the Italian tourist who was suspected of being the first H1N1 virus case in the Tibet autonomous region.

The 42-year-old woman, who has not been named, and her traveling companions all tested negative for the deadly strain and released from quarantine at about 10:40 am yesterday, said Dekyi, vice-chairwoman of the regional government.

An examination by the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed she was infected with only the A(H3N2) virus, also known as "seasonal flu", while her temperature was 37.5 C and her sore throat alleviated.

She had a fever of 38.5 C, a sore throat, stuffy nose and was sweating when she arrived at Zham, a border town in the Xigaze prefecture, on Saturday and was sent straight to the hospital.

The 23 other tourists in her party were put under observation at the Caiyuan Hotel, in Zham, while the Ministry of Health dispatched six experts to Tibet to back up medical staff from the Tibet health bureau.

Jessical Ricci, a tourist from the United States who was in the Italian's party, told Xinhua News Agency after being discharged she was very happy she could now continue her tour of Tibet, starting with a trip to the famous Tashilhunpo Monastery.

She said the group had clubbed together to buy a DVD player for a waiter at the hotel to thank him for his service, while staff presented them with hada, traditional white, silk scarves.

The H1N1 flu strain has spread fast in Japan, with 232 cases already confirmed, while Chinese travel agents were yesterday canceling tours to their Asian neighbors.

"Quite a number of tourists asked to cancel their trips to Japan," Zhang Rui, marketing manager for Beijing CAISSA International Travel, told China Daily yesterday. "They would be required by their employers to take isolation at home for at least a week if they made the visit this month."

However, experts have predicted the H1N1 flu's effect will be "periodical", with Dai Bin, deputy director of the China Tourism Academy, explaining at a press conference yesterday that the damage to China's inbound and outbound tourism would last only one or two quarters.

Meanwhile, the situation in neighboring countries has caused concern among Chinese overseas students, not least in Japan.

On Tuesday, China's consulate in Osaka reminded students to take precautions against the virus, and, in an open letter, Han Qide, president of the Western Returned Scholars Association said the measures required their active participation and cooperation, urging them to avoid public places and report flu-like symptoms as quickly as possible.

The first three of the five confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus on the Chinese mainland were all students returning for summer vacations. It has led to calls in China for those in flu-affected countries to delay or even abandon plans to come home.

The debate has raged since the second case involving a 19-year-old man surnamed Lu was confirmed. Netizens have dubbed him "Lu Chuanchuan" (chuan translates as transmission) after the Information Times alleged he suspected he had contracted flu from a Mexican classmate confirmed with H1N1 virus before boarding a flight to return to China from Canada.

In an interview with Xinhua on Monday, Lu said he was sorry for those people quarantined after he received criticism for visiting public places before reporting his symptoms or close contact with the Mexican student. "I wanted to go sightseeing and shopping in Beijing, but at that time I really didn't know I was infected with the virus," he said.

In all, 38 people were isolated until Monday after sharing a train carriage on the D41 train from Beijing to Jinan with Lu on May 11.

In his defense, however, Chen Shijun, director of Jinan's Infectious Disease Hospital, said: "The boy is innocent. Our common enemy is the virus."

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