“Scared isn’t the accurate word to describe how I feel,” Dr. Do Minh Hung pauses and ponders on how he’s felt in the past year, ever since Vietnam had its first COVID-19 spike. “As far as I know, the government, the hospitals, and the community are trying their best. And I think this pandemic will go away in the future—after all, it’s already on a downward trend. So scared isn’t the right word,” he says, “but worried certainly is. Honestly, the situation right now is a bit overwhelming for our healthcare system. Our country is struggling.”
Dr. Hung, one of the senior medical professionals at the Emergency Department of the Children’s Hospital 1 in outbreak epicenter Ho Chi Minh City, starts and ends his day with an anxious feeling—knowing things aren’t going to get better any time soon. With full PPE on, he goes from patient to patient in the ER, assessing their condition and trying to alleviate their pain. But sometimes, the situation gets overwhelming, especially as more patients get admitted every day.
“It’s difficult to give an exact number of patients getting admitted daily. It's the emergency department, after all, so it really depends,” the doctor says. However, he has noticed a spike in hospitalizations since June: “I must say that this year, at least for the first five months, the number of patients is not high. But from June to now, that number has increased significantly.” This observation corresponds with the fourth wave that the country has been experiencing; since the end of April, the Ministry of Health reports over 350,000 positive cases throughout the country.
Dr. Hung has also noticed an additional COVID symptom in his patients. “Generally, the most prominent symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But since this recent spike, I’ve seen some patients with diarrhea, which suits the symptoms of the Delta strain.”
With complications that result from the patients’ pre-existing conditions, or from COVID-19 alone, “one patient will already have a lot of complicated problems to worry about; so 10 patients, the average number we’ve been receiving daily since June, is truly a huge number.”
Within his seven years at the hospital, despite four of which being spent also as a part-time lecturer at the National University's Department of Medicine, Dr. Hung shares that this is the most disheartened he has felt. When asked about the hardest yet inevitable aspect of the job, like witnessing patients struggle and even pass away, he pauses, “It’s an uncomfortable and uneasy feeling.”
“In the past, seeing patients pass was a lot to handle. But the conditions are even worse now. Back then, at least parents would be next to their child, and they had access to more resources and better facilities.” But given the current situation of the pandemic and the stricter social distancing guidelines and policies, “many families can only look at their child from afar.”
“Watching a child pass, now, is very different… unlike the old days when families could grieve together, share one last hug, hold each other’s hands, or just be there for the final moments…” the 32-year-old doctor says with sadness in his tone, but continues, “In the past, for all the times I’ve seen someone say goodbye, I could keep my composure — even if I felt sad afterwards. But now, I can’t even look without choking up. If anything, it’s even sadder.”
Since he works with child patients, determining COVID cases and deaths is particularly difficult. The children who are admitted to the hospital, regardless of being COVID-positive or not, tend to have “serious pre-existing medical conditions, such as blood cancer, cerebral palsy, severe pneumonia, epilepsy, and more.” While not all of them test positive for COVID, seeing them suffer and die in ways they don’t deserve is heartbreaking, even for doctors like him who’ve seen hundreds of deaths all through their service.
But he acknowledges that his situation is different from that of other hospitals, such as the Children’s City Hospital, where they “have to accept severe F0 patients for treatment,” or for Emergency Departments in hospitals exclusively for adults.
As someone who works 10-hour shifts in a pandemic hotspot, the risk of being in contact with COVID-positive patients has become a “normal” part of the job, he says. In order to protect himself and his loved ones back home, Dr. Hung shares he has received both doses of the COVID vaccine months ago, per the hospital’s guidelines and program. Moreover, he is always equipped with full PPE, protective gear, masks, face shields, and everyone abides by social distancing rules—not only between patients and doctors but also among medical staff inside the ER.
“It’s not like the good old days,” Dr. Hung shares. “It feels like we’re living during war time,” where doctors are rushing to save as many people as possible. But instead of their patients being soldiers, they are, in fact, children under the age of 12.
“We’re living through a crucial point in history that none of us ever envisioned. At the same time,” the self-proclaimed optimist points out, “this time has revealed to us the kindness and compassion of humankind. Sure, it’s a situation no one wants to be in, but the stories of communities helping one another out… those stories are one of a kind.”
Amidst all that he has seen and been through in this pandemic, the one glimmer of hope that Dr. Hung witnesses are no other than his patients winning the fight against the virus. “In times when our patients remain unresponsive and we think of the worst, if I see a blink of an eye, a slight movement of their hands, or any other sign of life, and I see that the family is still holding onto hope, that gives me all the motivation I need.”
Despite working tireless hours for months, with no clear idea of what the future may hold, Dr. Hung has faith in the nation: “We are starting to see a slight downward trend in cases and hospitalizations.” At the same time, “whether this pandemic ends sooner or later depends on one thing: Vietnamese citizens abiding by the policies.”
As he waits for this to be over, he vows to remain the doctor his patients need — full of compassion and dedication to treat them and relieve them of pain. In the face of adversity, doctors like Hung realizes that this is the duty they signed up for, and many people depend on them. This is, in many ways, their contribution to Vietnam.