Emotions begin to come to surface in MERS fight

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Emotions begin to come to surface in MERS fight

The casualty rate for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) inched up slightly on Thursday, with the government announcing one new case, but considerably more serious in the fight against the disease has been the emotional fallout, which has afflicted far more than just the number of patients.

As of Thursday, reported MERS cases nationwide stood at 180, with the fatality rate at 16.1 percent.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare also reported two additional deaths, Patients Nos. 45 and 173, raising the death toll to 29.

Data aside, the disease’s impact has been extensive, and many patients have been stigmatized upon returning to their communities. Others have had to grapple with feelings of guilt and uncertainty, while the families of the victims have been left with little closure.

A 31-year-old woman who only wished to be identified by her surname Jo lost her mother on June 17. She was 54 years old.

Jo said she could barely eat or sleep after having witnessed her mother’s body being carried away for cremation. Worse still was that because her mother was a MERS patient, she was restricted from coming near the body to say her final goodbyes.

“I cry all day because I feel regretful and resentful,” she said. “I can barely sleep because I keep waking up.”

Her mother, one of Korea’s 29 MERS victims, was infected while she was being treated for shingles at Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital from May 19 to 29, when the disease was transmitted to more than 30 people there by Patient No. 1.

The 54-year-old was confirmed to have MERS on May 29, becoming the country’s 42nd case.

She was transferred to Seoul Medical Center to receive treatment for the virus and died 19 days later.

Relatives of victims are prohibited from coming into contact with the body, and Jo was only allowed to see her mother from a distance as quarantine workers came to take the body away.

“Her clothes [had been partially removed] because medical staff had to perform CPR on her before she died,” she said. “I couldn’t even think of [the traditional way in which the dead are handled] because she was a MERS patient, and her body was crudely packed in a plastic bag in a coffin to be sent to the crematorium.”

Jo added that since then, she has dealt with feelings of depression and guilt.

“I always think, ‘What if she hadn’t gone there?’ or ‘What if she was diagnosed with MERS a little earlier?’” she said. “I really wish I could have touched her face one last time. Every time I close my eyes, I still see the moment I saw her for the last time.”

Those feelings however, are not exclusive to families of the victims.

One of the 29 fully recovered patients, who requested anonymity, said she is taking pills for depression and insomnia.

“Even with the medicine, I can’t sleep more than five hours,” she said. “Sometimes I just feel consumed by rage and want to scream.”

She added that even after being declared free of the virus and leaving the hospital, her neighbors still treated her with skepticism, many avoiding her altogether.

“I worry all the time that my son’s school may find out,” she said. “I called his teacher and bawled my eyes out, asking her to let him continue to study normally.”

Patient No. 14, known as the super-spreader who transmitted the virus to 82 people in Samsung Medical Center’s emergency ward, is known to be struggling with a strong sense of guilt since being discharged from the hospital on Monday.

Experts say those feelings are natural, though such strong emotions may lead to serious mental illness if left unchecked. “If a person feels anger or can’t control his or her emotions, or feels sad or insecure, it’s usually just a normal response to stress,” said Choi Soo-hee, a neuropsychiatry professor at Seoul National University Hospital. “But if the symptoms last for too long or spin out of control, it may be something more serious.”

Lee Dong-woo, a professor of psychiatry at Inje University Sanggye Paik Hospital, added that about 10 to 20 percent of those who experience serious trauma may suffer from mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

To handle the aftermath, the health authority launched a psychotherapy support team for MERS on June 16, though the team has treated only 193 people as of Wednesday, raising questions about its effectiveness.

“We can guide them to psychotherapy only when they agree to the treatment, but it’s not easy to reach all [the MERS patients and those under quarantine] because their phone numbers are private personal information,” an official from the health ministry said.

BY RHEE ESTHER, KIM NA-HAN [kim.bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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