Living in an Epidemic

When I was reading about the Ebola outbreak last night, I thought of my time in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic. So I went back to the diaries I kept during this time and found couple of interesting entries. I was there as a Fellow in one of the world famous plastic surgery units during 2003. A Fellow is a young doctor who travels to another hospital unit to train for a specified period as a ‘trainee’ doctor, usually to learn from a specific doctor or a particular procedure/technique.

I have left this entry unedited, as it is a true perspective of an Australian living in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic, both as a doctor and local resident.

25th Aug 2003

It’s been more than two months already since the first wave hit Taipei. I still remember the panic that hit the city during that first week; it was when they closed down Ho-Ping Hospital in central Taipei, with all its patients and staff isolated within the hospital. It was constantly being aired on the news and the hospital exterior was being videoed 24 hours a day, a bit like reality TV. There were scenes of flying badmington cocks over the railings of the balcony, and I remembered the presenter reporting that it was great to see that the occupants of the hospitals keeping up their spirits, and exercising to keep fit. The comments from my male colleagues in the TV room at the time were less than polite. I think something was mentioned about there are better things to do when you are couped up with a whole bunch of young nurses. *eye roll*

Then there were news of individuals who were to be isolated at their own homes because they’ve been in contact with SARS suffers. After which, news of non-compliant isolated individuals venturing out of their homes were reported with the police were called to herd them back home. They have now posted guards around quarantined buildings to stop residents from ‘escaping’. Cases were on the rise, another hospital got shut down, and the mortality is starting adding up.

I have missed my chance to go home. Four weeks ago our department director gathered all the overseas Fellows in his office to let us know that if we wanted to go home and leave the country, he would still be happy to write us a certificate for our fellowship and recommend us for jobs back home. There were 7 of us, two from Harvard in the US, 2 from Italy, 1 from UK and another from Ukraine. The Ukrainian and I stayed. It was really a blessing in disguise, because now, instead of elbowing other Fellows out of the way for an opportunity to do cases, we are both operating more than 12 hours a day. I joked to my concerned parents back home that I spend so much time in the operating theatre with its filtered and uni-direction airflow, I am probably at the lowest risk of getting any respiratory virus. They weren’t amused. Wherease my boyfriend just said that if I got SARS, he wasn’t coming to visit. I’d like to believe that’s anger and frustration talking. I can understand why he’s so pissed at me. I think I would be too if our positions were reversed.

The one thing I have discovered about living in this SARS epidemic is that there seem to be more pregnant women than usual at the moment. One nurse mentioned to me that since we have to take our temperatures every day as required for all hospital staff, she has finally managed to get pregnant during her last cycle as she knew her exact ovulation date. A fellow colleague also mentioned that you can pick the pregnant nurses during this epidemic, as they are usually the ones wearing an N95-grade mask. These are heavy duck-billed masks which have viral filters and are very hot and uncomfortable. Most staff members such as myself (who want to breathe and admittedly am a bit blasé about the whole thing) just wear the regular light ones.

Oh well. You’ve gotta learn to see the bright side of life when living in an Epidemic.

Administration has been harping on about wearing the right masks, but I seriously believe that if I wash my hands (which are raw from scrubbing all day), and keep away from sniffling, slobbering people, I’ll be fine. I have been avoiding public transport as much as possible. I have blistered on my feet because it takes me one hour each way, walking to and from work. After 8pm, I just sleep in one of the spare beds in the Burns Unit. I suppose I am like every other deluded doctor at the moment, we think we are being ‘adequately’ careful and probably invincible.

A thought just occurred to me. If I die in this epidemic, I won’t be able to hear ‘I told you so.’

Well, I guess if I am not back tomorrow, you know I am being ventilated in ICU with SARS.



22 thoughts on “Living in an Epidemic

  1. I enjoyed reading this unusual perspective about the SARS epidemic. Clearly we all have a genetic predisposition to see the glass as half empty. Panicking at the sound of rustling grass probably gave us an evolutionary advantage at some point in our history but now these cognitive biases are simply an albatross around our necks. The recent widespread panic about the Ebola virus is nothing short of embarrassing.

  2. The SARS epidemic was way more serious than my silly *brush* with Ebola and in 2003 the attitude on infection control from clinicians was exactly as you say, “adequate and we are invincible”. Thanks for posting this! (So glad you survived!)

  3. For the lack of a better word. WOW. You are a hero! The work that you do and are still doing in exceptional. I can’t imagine the number of lives you probably touched. This was just some good faith and best wishes coming your way:).

  4. Holy cow! You were in SARS? That’s intense. Last year when I was in Hong Kong I visited the memorial for the healthcare workers who died in the epidemic. It was pretty surreal.
    And also: this is why I keep reminding myself to journal. That is prime stuff, primary historical sources. I love it, thanks for sharing!

    • Thinking back, the while experience was a little surreal. It’s amazing that I was right in the mist of it and yet so unconcerned! Reading journals is interesting… I thought, when I was reading it myself, wow, I don’t remember writing all this and feeling like this.

  5. A fascinating peek behind the scenes. Well written, to boot. It had a cinematic quality about it.

    You could have always had “I Told You So” engraved on your tombstone. Would that have been satisfactory?

    I’m a graphic designer and know a thing or two about branding. If you don’t mind my saying so, the visual “brand” you’ve chosen for your first-look banner, color palate and tag lines have little to do with the actual content. It might give first-timers the wrong impression, if you know what I mean.

    • I think if I was at my own funeral back then, I would have carved it myself!!!! Can’t believe how blasé (and stupid) I was.

      Thanks for your suggestions about my page. I am pretty pathetic with IT and have little clue about tag lines…. As for the banner etc, well, sometime all we do is think and write about work, so I wanted something a little different to make people see that I am not just all about doctoring and D&M’s on life, disease and death. People have told me many times that my name reminds them of the film, the jewellery brand and someone even said once that it’s s stripper name (and I definitely ain’t gonna put a sex shop theme to my page!!!)
      Also, i do sometimes write fluffy fashion blogs…
      Which I think you’ll probably find cringe-worthy 🙂
      I am however open to suggestions of what you may put on my banner! Thanks for visiting Mark! 🙂

    • “the visual “brand” you’ve chosen for your first-look banner, color palate and tag lines have little to do with the actual content. It might give first-timers the wrong impression, if you know what I mean.”

      ‘S what I was saying, right, Tiff? That you write solid stuff.

  6. LOL Stripper name. You’re a cross between someone who took the right measures (didn’t eat there, avoided public transportation) and someone who should’ve known better. Gee, just glad you lived to tell about it!!

    PS Your header shots are quite a quandary themselves. Bc I like the presentation, just the same. I like the sea green here, which I’d hate anywhere else.


  7. Funny…I was just finished writing a post on a very similar theme (showing up soon on my blog) when I read this! Great minds do think alike, apparently. 🙂

    I’m surprised some commenters didn’t think the Tiffany blue and Breakfast at Tiffany’s references made sense—on my first visit I was immediately struck with how the punning and playfulness suited your sense of humor, and not bothered by the disconnect from the serious topics you tackle. That’s just part of having a multifaceted personality and the interests to show for it, in my book. Bottom line is that you should always do what suits you. I think that’s one of the main reasons to blog in the first place, just finding what pleases you best!

    What pleases me is visiting here and finding so much to interest me each time. Cheers to you!


    • Wow. You and I could be soul mates! You got me spot on with that analysis of my page design! Someone who understand me…. xo
      And I look forward to your story soon. Your site also gives me lots of joy to visit!!

Go on, say something! Let me know you've been to visit!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s