It was a bright cold day in January, and the sky was a perfect piece of pale azure, interspersed with ragged wreaths of cloud that were quickly snuffed away by the wind. I stood at the entrance of Prince of Wales Hospital, watching them fade away into the bleak canvas of the sky.
I didn’t want to walk in. I didn’t want to don the surgical mask that fogged up my glasses and suffocated my breathing. I didn’t want to walk into a world of terror and grief.
But as a doctor, I had to.
Besides, if I turned around and walked back, I would have to look into the fear-filled eyes of an old man as he shifted his seat away from a coughing woman who would not take offense at the gesture. I would have to walk past schoolchildren whose accusing eyes asked me, why couldn’t you save my parents? I would have to walk through the despair that lingered in the wintry air of Hong Kong amidst a virus-filled world.
I triple-checked that my mask was plastered firmly to my skin before walking into the quarantine ward.
It was a nightmare.
Most patients lay, weak and defeated, in their narrow white gurneys, their faces pale and grotesque. A nurse passed me a clipboard, and I moved to the end of the ward.
I had seen this patient before, the woman in the drab hospital gown, the pale green sheet failing to conceal the large bulge in her stomach that told me she was heavily pregnant. Her eyelids fluttered as I moved towards her.
I opened my mouth to go through the dozens of potent drugs that could treat, and hopefully cure, her disease. She listened patiently while I recited my well-rehearsed speech. When I finished, her first question was, ‘What are the chances that I will survive?’
My throat closed. ‘About fifty-fifty.’
She nodded thoughtfully.
‘Well then,’ I said, beginning to make a note on the clipboard, ‘I’ll have this prescription written down. We should be able to get it started by –’
I faltered. ‘What?’
‘If I take these drugs, they could harm my baby, yes?’
Her hands went protectively to the bulge in her belly. I hesitated, crestfallen.
‘Yes, but –’
‘I’m not going to let this virus — or the drugs — hurt an unborn child.’
‘Listen,’ I said, suppressing the urge to lean in close. My hands went subconsciously to my face to make sure the mask was still secure. ‘If you don’t take these drugs, you’ll get worse and die. That’s not a fifty-fifty chance. It’s a hundred percent certainty.’
Her eyes were as hard as stones. Her determination overcame any protest rising to my lips. ‘My child’s about to be born, Doctor,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to base my child’s survival on a fifty-fifty chance.’
When I entered the ward the next day, she was talking on the phone to her daughter.
Her whispered words were weak and faint, but I had never seen her eyes so happy.
‘You’re going to have a little brother, Janie,’ she said, and a tear rolled down her cheek. ‘He can be your best friend.’
She paused as her daughter replied. Then she said, ‘I miss you, too.’
Her face was turned away from me, but I heard the sadness in her voice. ‘I love you, Janie. No matter what, okay?’ Tears flooded her face. ‘And I’m coming home. I promise. I’m coming back.’
I moved closer to her and placed a hand on her bony shoulder. When she glanced up at me, I reached for the phone.
She hesitated before she handed it to me.
‘Janie?’ I said, suppressing the storm of tears roaring through my thorax. ‘This is your mommy’s doctor. She’s doing great. And I’m going to make sure she comes back home to you.’
I asked her a question when I got off the phone. ‘Aren’t you afraid?’
Her eyes were clear despite her exhaustion. ‘Of death? Yes.’
‘Then why are you doing this? Why are you going to leave your little girl alone?’
‘Are you afraid, Doctor?’
I faltered. Was I afraid of infection? Of returning home with illness surrounding me, poisoning the very air I breathed? Was I afraid of death, that lay before me bleak and terrifying, that would be constricting my lungs if my mask slipped a single inch?
‘Yes,’ I admitted.
‘Then why are you doing this? Why are you walking into the hospital each day?’
I had to think about it. Why did I stay when all other medical personnel were fleeing from the disease-infested hospitals? Why did I stay even when all hope was lost?
‘Because this is my job. My job to stay and bring hope to the sick where no hope exists. My duty to recognize the fragility of life and treasure it by giving patients any chance they’ve got.’
I turn to my desk now. There is a framed picture of Janie as she cradled her new, healthy baby brother, her father beside her, her mother absent. Her face was completely lost, asking silently, Where’s Mommy?
I still donate a healthy portion of my salary to her childcare every year, and in return her father keeps me updated on her life. She’s studying psychology, hoping to help other people who have been in her situation. She talks little, and refuses to share much of her experience with the deadly disease, not wanting others’ sympathy.
But I can tell what her mother’s death has made her. She has turned out to be a real survivor, undaunted and positive, living proof of the devastation the disease has brought upon the city.
It is for children like Janie that I work, that I take the train to Prince of Wales Hospital every day, don the surgical mask that presses uncomfortably against my mouth, and walk into the disease-infested wards. My job to give them hope where none exists.