In MERS outbreak, one nurse works to fight the angel of death

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In MERS outbreak, one nurse works to fight the angel of death

Kim Hyun-ah, a nurse at Hallym University Medical Center in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, recently sent a letter to the JoongAng Ilbo detailing her experience working to fight Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Over the past month, the potentially deadly virus has spread rapidly throughout Korea, infecting 150 people and killing 16 as of Monday.

Kim works in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) and had been under quarantine and monitoring at home for 15 days by the time she spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo. In her letter, she vowed to fight against the angel of death to save as many patients as she could from the disease.

The JoongAng Ilbo met the 41-year-old, who was back working in the hospital’s ICU on Monday, when the quarantine was lifted after she, 123 medical staff and 36 patients were confirmed negative for the virus. In the interview, Kim said she hoped her letter would be encouraging for all the doctors and medical workers out there battling the outbreak.

Q. You’re finally free from quarantine. How do you feel?

A. I have a morning shift today and I wasn’t able to sleep on Sunday night. Right after the clock hit midnight, I went out of my house to take out my garbage. I don’t know why, but it was the first thing that popped into my head. But I still wore my mask.

How was life under quarantine and monitoring?

It was all about making myself clean all day long. I even wrote a note on a disposable lunch box I threw out just in case the people managing the trash touched it with bare hands. I also cleaned up floors of the hospital, and even computers, telephones, and TV monitors with bactericide after I heard it could kill the virus.

Wearing a N95 mask and anti-contamination cloth was painful not only because of the hot weather but because it forced me to breath much harder. It also made me move much slower, and it was very inconvenient when using the bathroom.

All the nurses in the same situation couldn’t put on makeup and washed their hands more than 100 times a day.

How hard it was it to deal with MERS?

A parent of one of our nurses took her daughter to their home because many people thought the disease could be spread simply by standing next to another person. Some families in the intensive care unit aggressively complained and some even yelled at us before the government revealed the hospital list. I was upset that I had become a potential vehicle for the spread of the disease.

You worked with Patient No. 25, who was the first person to die from MERS. What were your thoughts when the patient passed away?

I regret even having to refer to the patient with a number. When the patient passed away on May 31, I had to leave the corpse in an isolated room for seven hours because I had to wait until the patient was confirmed to have been infected or not. I very much regret that I couldn’t save the patient and also felt totally powerless in the face of the disease.

As someone who has experience with MERS, what do you think of the disease?

I think the virus is in my body for sure because I was around [Patient No. 25], who died from the disease. I was afraid of it, but the nurses in the hospital tried to relieve one another with silly jokes - like, this virus must be nothing to us since we must have been exposed to so many other viruses working in the ICU. I’m not afraid of MERS after what I went through over the last 15 days. I think we can beat this.

How are the patients in critical condition handling MERS?

Most of the patients in critical condition are not able to speak or are unconscious, and we have explained the situation to their families. But one 28-year-old female patient in the ICU knew everything about MERS. She was good enough to use her laptop and told me that she also read the letter I wrote to the JoongAng Ilbo. I explained to her that she needed to stay inside the ICU because she might infect other people and she agreed. I want to thank her for her cooperation.

How long have you been working in the ICU?

I joined the hospital in 1996 and have worked in the ICU for most of my career because I wanted to work in a place where I could help people hanging between life and death. When I first started my career, one elderly lady suffering from cancer described me as a “kid fighting against the angel of death.” I didn’t know what it truly meant at that time because I was too young, but now I realize that my role is to fight against death and stop it from taking my patients.

Do you have any principles when dealing with patients?

When I see a female patient, I imagine my mother and I imagine my grandmother when I have elderly patients. Nurses are the only people whom patients can rely on in the ICU, and nurses should believe that patients can be healed. I also believe that nurses must stay busy all the time to make the situation more comfortable for their patients. I have six pillows for me at home and put some of them underneath my legs because they hurt so much when I finish work. By doing such things, I try to figure out what kind of position would make patients feel more comfortable. I once put a pillow underneath the waist of an unconscious patient and the patient’s face brightened.

Do you write letters often, like you did to us?

I usually write in a diary about the experiences I have with my patients, the doctors and nurses. I once dreamed of becoming a professional writer, so I have experience writing [movie] scripts, and I once submitted a story in a contest. I thought about so many things during my quarantine period, so I decided to write a letter.

Were there any changes after the letter was published in our paper?

At the beginning of the MERS outbreak, people blamed one another and only attempted to find out who was accountable for this crisis, and I still see some of them doing that, but I don’t think it’s the right time now. We need to resolve the problem as soon as possible because people are anxious. I felt upset when some people tried to avoid contact with the medical staff, but I feel like I did a good thing because many people understood my letter. I also received many phone calls from fellow nurses, who told me that they were able to reflect on the true spirit a nurse should have.

What do you want to do first now that you’re free?

If I earn some free time, I want to go to Daegu to bring my mother back home. I recommended she stay at her sister’s house there because I was worried about her getting infected. I spoke to her on the phone and it looks like she has become a MERS expert from being around me.


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