Stories from the frontline of Thailand’s war on Covid-19
When one of her colleagues at a Covid-19 testing laboratory developed flu-like symptoms a few weeks ago, medical scientist Thitiya Kanthadong’s worst fear was not getting infected. Her heart was heaviest about the possibility of the entire lab shutting down because all its staff had to be quarantined.
“Really, that was my biggest concern because I knew there were piles of work to do and patients were waiting,” she recounted.
Thitiya works for the King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital’s Virology Unit – Microbiology Department and is based at a lab. At the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak, crowds of patients waited anxiously outside the lab braving sweltering heat in an area without air-conditioners.
“My colleague went out into the crowd one day. She returned to say she now empathised with patients even more, and pledged to work harder,” said the 34-year-old scientist.
The lab began testing samples for Covid-19 on February 13. On busy days, Thitiya worked from 8am to 2 or 3 the next morning. “Sometimes, the lab stayed open till 5am the following day as specimens for testing kept flooding in,” she said.
She was granted a day off for every nightshift she worked. Free food was delivered to the lab and the hospital arranged a room for her to stay overnight after long, tiring shifts.
Thitiya’s supervisors tipped her off about what was coming well before Covid-19 arrived in Thailand. “I was given papers about the new coronavirus last December, when cases had just been detected in China’s Wuhan,” she said.
Her lab began making preparations to ensure it could detect the new virus if there was an outbreak in Thailand.
Those preparations paid off when her lab was among the first to be approved for Covid-19 testing by the Department of Medical Sciences.
King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital already boasted excellent facilities to deal with airborne infectious diseases like Covid-19, thanks to the vision of its medical team, which includes Assoc Prof Dr Kampol Suwanpimolkul who now works at the hospital’s Emerging Infectious Disease Clinic.
Specialising in infectious diseases, Kampol said the current pandemic was by no means unforeseeable.
“We are always aware of the threat from airborne infectious diseases, which is the reason we requested funds to develop facilities to deal with it. That’s why, when Covid-19 broke out in Thailand, we already had well-designed facilities in place, including negative pressure rooms,” Kampol explained.
A patient under investigation (PUI) who checked into the hospital’s Emerging Infection Diseases Clinic in early March was amazed by the modern facilities and world-class safety standards he witnessed.
“The clinic is in an old building. But once you walk in, it is a different story,” the man told media after he tested negative for Covid-19 and was discharged.
Kampol proudly revealed that his clinic had treated 187 coronavirus patients, and none had died of the disease. “Most of the seriously ill patients who needed respirators have recovered and left the hospital,” he said.
He credited the success to the combined efforts of all hospital staff in caring for patients, from its director to its outsourced cleaners, who refused to budge even after learning the disease was contagious and potentially deadly.
“Doctors from other departments also pitched in. For example, obstetricians supported us when we cared for a pregnant and seriously ill Covid-19 patient,” he said.
While devoted to the care of all patients, Kampol said his memory of treating the pregnant woman was especially vivid because he knew her recovery would mean saving not just one life but two.
“I was so glad to see her recover,” he said, adding that he was keen to accept her referral from a private hospital after reading her history – a woman in her 30s who finally became pregnant despite fertility problems, but who suddenly found her baby’s and her own life endangered by the new virus.
At present, there is just one seriously ill Covid-19 patient being treated at Kampol’s clinic and he hopes that this patient too will recover soon. Patients with milder symptoms are being cared for at a nearby hotel that has been repurposed to provide medical care.
Asked whether he was afraid of contracting the deadly infection at work, Kampol said he had confidence in safety standards and procedures at the hospital. “What you think would be the most dangerous place could be the safest, you know,” he quipped.
Kampol is also grateful to have such a supportive family – his elderly parents, his wife, and his children. “During the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak, I could only see them for a maximum 10 minutes a day. We ate separately and were always at least two metres apart,” he disclosed, emphasising that his family was taking strict precautions to minimise the risk of infection.
None of his family members have contracted Covid-19. And neither have any staff at Chulalongkorn Hospital – despite occasionally running low on supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Kampol said he wished to share his mother’s words of wisdom with everyone struggling to stay safe during the contagion. “Be mindful,” said the medical specialist, echoing the words his mum says to him every morning. “If we are mindful of what we are doing, we should be fine,” he added.
As of May 6, Thailand had recorded 2,989 cases of Covid-19. Most have recovered, leaving only 173 who are currently being treated for the disease. The epidemic has so far killed 55 people across the country. Three medical workers have also sacrificed their lives working long hours in the battle against Covid-19, though their deaths are not included in official pandemic statistics.
By ThaiPBS World’s General Desk