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Hong Kong Medical Workers Become Heroes in SARS Crisis - 2003-06-16

Hong Kong medical workers threatened with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome became known as heroes in the city for their dedication and bravery in treating patients. Dozens of hospital workers contracted the virus and at least seven died from it.

Starting in mid-March, when SARS first took hold in Hong Kong, health care workers began falling ill with the disease.

They became the group hit hardest by the disease, making up more than 20 percent of the 1,700 cases in Hong Kong. Several of Hong Kong's 300 SARS fatalities were medical workers.

David Chan is a senior nurse at the Prince of Wales Hospital intensive care unit, and that made him a front-line worker in the fight against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

He recalls the early days of the outbreak, saying "more and more patients were admitted to my ICU. Among all those patients there were many health care professionals. There were nurses, there were doctors, there were occupational therapists, a radiographer and some assistants. When the number of health care workers increased we also felt worried. We might bring this disease back to our family."

Mr. Chan says the work in the intensive care unit was physically straining, too. After the number of SARS cases began to rise, the nurses received orders to move other intensive care patients to make room for the influx of patients suffering from the serious pneumonia SARS causes.

Mr. Chan helped lift dozens of patients from their beds to transfer them to other hospitals. As the outbreak spread in the hospital, his workload increased - not only because he was treating more patients but also because there were fewer people to care for patients.

While he did not worry too much about his own health, the extra work had a physical toll. As the outbreak peaked, Mr. Chan's weight dropped dramatically - in just two weeks he was five and a half kilos lighter. Outside the hospital, his wife and three children experienced mixed reactions from friends who became aware Mr. Chan was working with SARS patients. "Many people in the church, they knew that we work in the hospital and they feel scared when they saw us. It's interesting on one side many people see we are heroes, on the other side they want to keep away from us. I did hesitate whether to go back to the church or not," he says.

Mr. Chan considers himself one of the lucky ones. Despite weeks of treating SARS patients, he escaped infection.

Other hospital workers were not as fortunate. Tony Chan also is a nurse at Prince of Wales Hospital. He speaks of his despair in discovering he had SARS. "The more I told myself not to be frightened, the more I was frightened, and the more I told myself not to worry, the more I worry," he says.

He was at work when he started to feel tired, so he left early to get some rest. Hours later, he awoke with a fever of 39 degrees Celsius and flu-like symptoms, the key SARS symptoms.

Tony Chan says that his spirits were positive at first because he did not feel particularly ill during his initial days in the hospital.

But during his three-week hospitalization, his condition would swing often. Some days he would register a normal temperature, a sign of recovery for SARS patients. But other days his fever shot up to 40 degrees Celsius. Breathing also became difficult as his pneumonia worsened. He was eventually forced to use an oxygen mask.

Tony Chan says he learned much during his illness. "Through SARS I get many, many things, I felt. I experienced God through SARS and I experienced the caring provided by my family members, my colleagues, the doctors and nurses, and my friends, my brother and sister, and I felt my relationship with all of them are improved," he says.

Tony Chan remembers a patient with whom he shared his hospital room. That patient died just hours after Chan was discharged. The man's death was troubling, Tony Chan recalls, because he had shown signs of tremendous improvement.

Although the outbreak is waning, with only a few dozen SARS patients still hospitalized, many people continue to struggle with the affects of the disease.

Yvoenne Mak, a social worker in a residential district with the highest concentration of SARS cases, says hundreds of people still suffer from the anguish of confronting the serious illness. Hundreds more are trying to cope with losing a loved one to SARS. "We are now very engaged in helping the psychological, emotional disturbance of recovered patients," she says.

Ms. Mak is central to support programs to help families touched by SARS. She says there has been a very positive reaction to the outbreak in Hong Kong. These days, she is flooded with requests by people wanting to volunteer time and money to help SARS victims and their families.