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At the front line of battle against disease

By Zhao Shengnan| China Daily| Updated: 2015-04-06

From exhaustion to limited resources and facilities, Chinese healthcare professionals brave trying conditions to go beyond the call of duty by helping residents of Ebola-hit areas deal with the life-threatening epidemic. In their own words, the team members recall their valuable experiences of coming face to face with the scourge that shook the world.

MAO QING

Title: Chief medical officer

Age: 50

1981-1986: Student at Third PLA Military Medical University, Chongqing

1986-present: Working at Southwest Hospital affiliated to Third PLA Military Medical University

"I have done nothing extraordinary," Mao said, reluctant to talk about himself at first after arriving back in Chongqing. "I was just doing my job as a doctor, saving lives."

As the man in charge of all medical affairs at the Ebola Treatment Unit, Mao took care of not only the local patients, but also his fellow healthcare workers, who were the group most vulnerable to contracting the deadly disease.

"Any ailment among my team members will make me very nervous," he said. Fortunately, the whole team has been healthy during the 21-day medical observation after returning home on Jan 16.

"I need to make decisions about everything related to my field," Mao said. His job included making individual treatment plans and working procedures, and training team members and their families.

In Liberia, he started working at 8 am and usually finished at about 2 am. In order to get more sleep, he regularly skipped breakfast.

"When my head touched the pillow, I fell asleep," he said. "But I had a lot of dreams, about the hospital and the treatment discussions."

Because it was the only Ebola treatment unit with surveillance cameras on the wards, the unit's Chinese doctors could watch the patients 24 hours a day. Whenever a patient needed care, the medical workers put on their protective suits and rushed in.

"You can barely breathe wearing such suits," Mao said. Medical workers are advised not to wear the suits for more than one hour. But one night he set a record by staying in the wards for three and a half hours as patients kept coming in.

"I felt alive again when I came out of the ward and I was soaked," he said

Mao also attended coordination meetings every other day hosted by Liberia's National Ebola Command Center. "We exchanged information and learned from each other," he said. "It's a very efficient mechanism for combating the disease."

CHEN SHENG

Title: Doctor

Age: 40

1994-1999: Chongqing Medical University

1999-present: Working at Chongqing Southwest Hospital affiliated to Third PLA Military Medical University

It gave Chen Sheng great satisfaction to save a 7-year-old Ebola patient. But the pediatrician was devastated that he could not save a 5-month-old boy.

"It was already a miracle that the infant lived nine days after being diagnosed with Ebola," Chen said. "If he could have held on for two more days, he might have survived."

The death rate of Ebola patients under age 15 is about 74 percent, and he estimated that the figure for babies under 1 year old is 80 to 90 percent.

Chen and his colleagues tried all means possible to save the infant.

In order to give oxygen to the fragile patient, which was a very dangerous move for the medical workers, the Chinese team spent a whole night scouting for an oxygen tank.

"We thought nothing about ourselves (getting infected by the virus) but saving his life," the doctor said.

"His situation changed so fast and we did not have enough medical supplies in Liberia. We were really, really upset about his death."

With intensive care, the 7-year-old boy was a lucky survivor. He was diagnosed with Ebola on Dec 24 and discharged on Jan 12.

To give better nutrition to the patient, Chen and his teammates fed him their own food, such as milk powder and nutrition pills, and went out to buy the local food the boy wanted to eat.

"When we bought some bananas for the kid from a local farmer, he thanked our efforts to help his countrymen and refused to take our money," Chen said. "At that moment, I felt our hearts were connected."

LIU LEI

Title: Director of Ebola prevention training

Age: 41

Working at: Chongqing Daping Hospital affiliated to Third PLA Military Medical University

Liu Lei suffered a scare when, on the eighth day after she arrived in Liberia, she got a fever.

"I am a very healthy person and I hardly ever have a fever in China," she said. "Fortunately, it was just a common cold and I recovered in three days. I was just too tired."

Ebola prevention training for the local community is one of the major tasks of Chinese medical teams. The original goal was to train 1,500 people in six months. But Liu and her colleagues reached the target in just two months.

About 15 Chinese medical workers took part in the training program. Altogether they ran 20 sessions, both at the Ebola treatment unit and outside, for Liberian military staff, the police department, medical staff, peacekeeping troops and community workers.

As the gatherings faced a very high risk of Ebola infections, Liu said, every participant had to wash their hands, take body temperature checks inside and outside of the classroom, and keep a safe distance from the others. The classroom was thoroughly disinfected and ventilated after each training session.

"We were very glad that the preventive measures worked and no one got infected," Liu said.

All the classes were taught in English, and the Chinese team prepared three sets of instructions, PowerPoint presentations, videos and scenario simulations, to help teach the preventive measures.

"The training was well-received and the local students would stand up and applaud us when it was over," said the director.

A questionnaire showed that their satisfaction rate was 95.8 percent, Liu said.

"They suggested longer training sessions, a better lunch, and stronger air conditioning."

SONG CAIPING

Title: Director of Nursing Department

Age: 40

Working at: Chongqing Xinqiao Hospital affiliated to Third PLA Military Medical University

Every day in Liberia, Song Caiping was busy solving seemingly trivial problems on the wards that would affect the safety of patients and medical workers, such as a door lock and an electric fan.

Because there was no password lock at the Ebola treatment unit, "it took me four days to find a way to lock a door between a ward and a non-polluted area without using a key," she said.

The biggest problem for the nurses was the disinfectant water containing chlorine, which they had to spray all over their bodies many times a day.

The exposure to such high concentrations of chlorine caused them chest pain, coughing, vomiting, eye irritation and runny noses.

"Many nurses could not bear the chlorine, and their movements on the wards became difficult and unsteady, which could be dangerous," Song said. "One nurse almost suffocated as her mask was full of her nose secretions."

Finally, several electric fans were found and installed to help blow off the greenish-yellow chlorine dioxide gas in the rooms.

Wearing layers of protective suiting made the nurses' every action on the wards clumsy. It usually takes five minutes to give a shot, but in the Ebola treatment unit, "it would be very lucky for us to finish the work in half an hour", the nurse said.

The Chinese nurses built a good relationship with their Liberian counterparts and patients at the unit. The medical team hired about 80 local staff members.

"At first, we could feel that the Liberian staff were a little suspicious about how we Chinese medical workers would treat their countrymen," Song said.

But their suspicions soon disappeared.

"Later, we saw more and more local patients coming to the Chinese ETU."


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