The nightingales dispatched across the nation
And in the southeastern city of Daegu, where the majority of confirmed cases are concentrated, many of these selfless professionals are volunteers.
A total of 31 doctors, 121 nurses and 160 medical staff are taking care of some 150 coronavirus patients who are being isolated within Comwel Daegu Hospital, a state-designated hospital located in Buk District.
After the cases of infections spiked in Daegu in late February, the city was faced with a severe shortage in both facilities and medical staff, forcing it to make a plea for volunteers.
This plea was answered by volunteers from a spectrum of different backgrounds.
One such volunteer is 59-year-old nurse Kim Mi-rae, who is no stranger to the scene. Kim has worked as a nurse for Kyungpook National University Chilgok Hospital in Daegu for 36 years. Although she was on sabbatical at that time, after hearing of the crisis within her city, she immediately volunteered to help. She was assigned to work in the 51st ward on Feb. 29.
While there are experienced veterans like Kim with decades of experience in the medical field, younger volunteers also dove headfirst into the battle against the virus.
Park Ji-won, a 27-year-old nurse, was working at Kyungpook National University Chilgok Hospital when he volunteered. He was dispatched to Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center — another national infectious disease hospital.
Lee Jung-hyeon, a 36-year-old medical laboratory technology expert from a local clinic located in Daegu’s Nam District, also volunteered straight away after hearing the city’s plea for help.
These three volunteers have independently sent letters of their experiences to the JoongAng Ilbo. Ranging from topics like stifling protective suits, the renewal of personal vows and conversations with grateful patients, the letters give an insight into the lives of those sacrificing their time and safety in the hotbed of the virus outbreak.
The following are excerpts from their letters.
Kim Mi-rae, 59, nurse
Daegu is silent — a desolate kind of silence. When I walk out to the balcony and look out at the city before me, I am reminded of those movie sets of empty cities, ones people have evacuated long ago.
But even more than the silent streets, I am afraid of the distrust that has grown among the residents of the city.
My worried eldest daughter told me, “Mother, after 35 years of work, you finally have the opportunity to rest. But you are walking straight into the heart of the virus outbreak.”
My second eldest daughter: “You are 59 years old now.”
My son: “I would have been proud of you for doing this — but that would have only been the case if you were someone else’s mother. You are my mother, and I am worried for you.”
I knew they were all worried for me. But I was determined. And they soon realized that. For that, I was and always will be thankful.
It’s the first day of work. I knew that my family was worried, but if this would allow the city to overcome the crisis, I would always be a willing participant.
I strap on the heavy-duty mask, snap on the full-face goggles around my head and slip into the protective body suit. The mask and goggles were tighter than I expected them to be. They dug into my skin. It was suffocating.
The nurses work in two-hour shifts. After a shift, we would be allowed to take off our suits and take a break. The two-hour shifts were the problem. It was difficult adjusting to the protective gear, no matter how much time we spent wearing it. One nurse, complaining about nausea and dizziness, left in the middle of the shift. Another nurse struggled with headaches and breathing. We were all anxious of accidently transferring the virus between patients, because of course, we were here because we wanted to help. But the difficulties with the protective gear were overwhelming. We soon found ourselves looking at our watches, counting down the seconds.
Regardless, this was my calling and vocation. With proper will and principles, I knew that I could fulfill my responsibilities. I promise this to myself at the start of every day.
There are 52 patients in the ward that I was dispatched to, and most of the patients are on the younger side, with relatively minor ailments. The nurses are responsible for providing food and medication to these patients, while monitoring their temperatures, pulse, breathing and blood pressure levels at consistent intervals. Due to the difficulties with breathing, it was hard to sustain a long conversation with them. Personally, I felt that the patients were thinking that they were a burden to the medical staff and were doing their utmost to be polite and friendly to us. Every time I look at their faces, I renew the promise to my duty, trying my utmost to be kind to them.
This was not the first time Daegu was hit by a crisis. Daegu acted as a first line of defense against many disasters, including the Daegu gas explosions of 1995 and the Daegu subway fire of 2003. Each and every time disaster struck, Daegu’s citizens acted as one unified force.
I am confident that this crisis will be no different. As nightingales dispatched to all corners of Korea, we nurses will fulfill our mission. Just as some plants grow stronger in the face of inclement weather, we will grow stronger in the face of a national emergency. We will overcome.
Park Ji-won, 27, nurse
Today, I finished my first day at the hospital.
To be honest, when I made the decision to volunteer to help the coronavirus victims, I had not sorted out my thoughts completely. I just knew that this was something that I had to do.
But on the night before my first day at work, I suddenly got frightened. I remember lying in my bed trembling, not being able to sleep at all.
I left for work the following day, with only an hour of sleep. I had to put a protective suit on when I arrived. It was the first time I had worn anything like it before, but before not even an hour had passed, my body was drenched with sweat. My goggles were all fogged up, so it was difficult to see anything in front of me. Whenever I felt dizzy, I would sit on a nearby seat and take deep breaths — I could only hope that the dizziness would fade away.
It was the first time all us nurses met. However, since we all gathered here with the same goal, we started to have conversations right away. These conversations became a source of strength for us. I am sure that all these people volunteering were facing their own difficult circumstances. But when I saw that so many volunteers were all here right now, at this very moment, helping the patients, it was difficult not to feel emotional.
Many of the patients were in better condition than I expected them to be. Patients who were by themselves in the rooms had no one to talk to all day, so I always made sure to put aside the time to go and talk to them, to try and lift their spirits. Every time I visited, the patients would always smile and thank me sincerely. I could not help but feel satisfied in those moments and knew that I should try my best for the sake of these patients.
I pray that the virus does not spread any further, that those who are sick recover quickly and that our country overcomes this crisis. This is all that I ask for.
Lee Jung-hyeon, 36, medical technology expert
As the country was becoming increasingly paralyzed by the coronavirus outbreak, the first thing I asked myself was: What could I do to help? It was at that moment that I heard the calls for volunteers in Daegu. I volunteered straight away.
I had volunteered during the 2009 swine flu outbreak, so it was an obvious decision for me. I was immediately dispatched to the designated hospital the following day.
Before I could even set foot in the hospital, I had to wear a Level D protective body suit. After the two-hour shift, it is normal to find my clothes — even my socks — drenched in sweat.
I was in charge of the gathering of blood samples. The anxiety whenever a patient coughed was a given. The real challenge was trying to draw the samples with goggles and two layers of gloves. The goggles were especially an issue. They would always fog up, making it difficult to administer the needle. Fortunately, we have a chance to take a break and recover after the shift is over.
To all medical staff, volunteers and patients who are fighting the disease: I thank all of you with all my heart.
BY HWANG SOO-YEON, YI WOO-RIM AND ANDREW LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]