By Tan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Fanny Fong contracted SARS in 2003 while caring for patients at the hospital where she worked. But while she has recovered, it has left her so weak she needs to carry an oxygen tank whenever she leaves home.
Not only did the disease leave her lungs scarred, the former hospital attendant also feels constant pain in her bones.
Her doctors say her skeletal system is degenerating very quickly — a condition called avascular necrosis and which was caused by the heavy use of steroids when she was treated for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
“I am living in constant suffering,” said the 48-year-old who now walks with a cane and takes morphine regularly to help her cope with her pain. Next to her is an oxygen tank, which she takes with her in a carrier on wheels when she goes to hospital — the only time she leaves home.
Fong spent two months in hospital fighting for her life when she came down with SARS. She winces whenever she hears about a looming pandemic that might be triggered by the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, which health experts say might kill millions of people.
When SARS broke out and spread to 30 countries in 2003, hospitals in affected nations were quickly overwhelmed and their economies came to a standstill. The virus infected more than 8,400 people in all, killing about 800 of them.
“SARS killed only 800 people and already it caused so much chaos. How can the world cope with H5N1?” Fong said. The Hong Kong government’s repeated assurances that the city was well prepared for a pandemic are hardly convincing for her.
“We now have the same number of hospitals as we did in 2003. Can they cope with a sudden increase in the number of sick people?” said Fong, who was working at the Caritas Medical Center when she fell ill with SARS in late April 2003.
During the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic, 15 percent of Hong Kong’s population was infected.
Working from that percentage, top health officials have said that as many as a million people in Hong Kong could be sickened by the next pandemic. Many people in the city fear health services would be overwhelmed and thousands could die.
When SARS began spreading in Hong Kong in early 2003, it quickly overwhelmed two public hospitals that were initially handling such patients. Fong’s hospital was then ordered to take in suspect cases and soon, practically anyone with a fever was admitted and her ward filled up in no time.
“There was no isolation whatsoever. Everyone was in one big room and we took care of just anyone not knowing what they were suffering from,” she said, adding that the hospital provided no protective gear except for a flimsy surgical mask.
She remembers helping to bathe more than 10 patients in her ward just a day before she herself was admitted to hospital when x-rays showed “shadows” in her lungs — tell-tale signs of pneumonia, one of the classic symptoms of SARS.
“Five days later, I was in ICU where they punched holes in the sides of my body so they could insert tubes directly into my lungs to help me breathe,” she said, adding she was by that time so weak she could not even suck from a straw.
In Hong Kong, 1,755 people were infected by SARS, and 299 of them died. Of those infected, 386 were healthcare workers and of these, 6 died.
Hong Kong’s government came under heavy criticism in the aftermath of SARS for its many blunders, which included not providing enough protective gear for hospital staff.
“I was a very normal person. Now I have lost everything, even my freedom to work,” Fong said, as she stared into empty space.
She now survives on social welfare and has to depend on volunteers to bring her three meals each day as she does not even have the strength to do any shopping or cook.
Like other SARS survivors, Fong has to live with the stigma attached to the disease. She has not seen her only son, who is in his 20s, since she walked out of hospital in late June 2003. None of her relatives or friends keep in touch with her.
“I just hope the government can educate the public not to discriminate against us,” Fong said, as she reached again for the oxygen tube to help her breathe.