I read so much about the amazing ways our healthcare system and public service have been standing up to the test of COVID-19 while I was in the UK, and I got to witness them first-hand. I flew back to Singapore on 25 March and was one of the last batches that could still serve my Stay Home Notice (SHN) at home. My entire flight was given a thorough medical assessment, including a nose swab, and I was cleared to go home. I was informed later that my test was positive and was escorted to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) for immediate isolation and monitoring. Thankfully, my wife’s test was negative. As I had no symptoms, I was really gutted about hogging up valuable resources at NCID. But I took the opportunity to note down the procedures as I witnessed exemplary efficiency and professionalism.
11.30am - boarded ambulance to NCID. Ambulance’s siren sounded most of the way on the expressway. The overworked paramedics are likely on a tight and packed schedule. Within 10 minutes, I reached the hospital.
11.50am - escorted by a man in his 60s directly to my ward. Wondered what made him continue doing his job in such a risky environment. He was fully suited up in PPE just like everyone else in the hospital. I tried to stand as far from him as I could, just to be sure.
12pm - already given a ward and bed, and chatted with a doctor via phone. I sat on the chair instead of the bed because it hadn’t fully dawned on me that I was a hospital patient. Good thing I did that because I was quickly moved to another ward. Hopefully the nurses wouldn’t have to change the bedsheets since I hadn’t touched them. I specifically told them the surfaces I had touched.
12.30pm - briefed by a staff nurse regarding the functions of the bed, the protocols for getting food, the different waste bins for clothes and trash. Given a set of hospital clothes to change into. Now mentally, I’m officially a patient.
2.45pm - doctor checked on me. We discussed the UK’s approach to COVID-19 and how it was difficult to pinpoint when exactly I might have contracted the virus. I needed to be kept in isolation until I got 2 consecutive days of negative tests. I wished this was the requirement for my upcoming exams. Given limited isolation wards and beds, I might need to move from NCID to a separate facility if I consistently test positive. Since I appeared asymptomatic, it made complete sense for me to not hog a bed. Someone else would surely need it much more than I did. There is also a chance to contribute to vaccine research by donating my plasma when I’m fully recovered. I gladly agreed to the awesome opportunity.
3.15pm - nurse came to take my blood and do a nose swab. I guess now I know what it would feel like if aliens took me to their spaceship to examine my brain. The swab goes really deep, could almost feel it at my eye. I did it once at the airport, and another time today. I’ll be a pro by the end of this. The nurse kept apologizing for the discomfort she caused. But I was more apologetic that everyone who came in to see me had to go through a 5-minute process of removing their PPE and decontaminating themselves. I watched each of them do it like a normal daily routine.
3.45pm - a radiographer and nurse came in to take an X-ray with a mobile machine. Didn’t know they could do X-ray on the move. They did it really quickly. Again, needed to scrub down after they left the room. And this time, also wipe down the X-ray machine.
4.45pm - doctor called to talk through every single thing I had done since I landed in Singapore, helping me recall every single person I might have come in contact with. He was extremely patient and we ended up chatting about the scientific basis for the herd immunity strategy the UK appeared to be pursuing at one point.
I’m at the end of Day 1 now and feeling extremely at ease, knowing that I’m in the secure hands of our fantastic system. I know there is literally no better place to be going through this than here at home. I’m just hoping to get my negative test results as soon as possible, and remove myself from burdening the system as quickly as I possibly can.
The first few days in NCID and eventual move out
Blink of an eye and it is already Day 4 in the isolation ward. I have gotten the hang of the routines by now. In the morning at around 8am a staff nurse wakes me and comes in to check my blood pressure. Shortly after, a doctor would call to check whether I have been feeling any symptoms. We would discuss the potential next steps, and I would get to clarify all the medical questions I have. At around 9.30am another doctor would come in to check my lungs and ensure they are functioning well. Then for the rest of the day, there would be regular blood pressure checks by the staff nurse, with the last check being around 11pm. My temperature is also monitored remotely every hour via a small RFID device on my leg.
I really wanted to talk to the doctors and nurses to ask about how they have been holding up, but decided instead to focus on being a minimum-fuss patient. I managed a 5-minute chat with the staff nurse at the end of Day 1. She said they work 12-hour shifts consecutively and it can get quite tiring. But still, she said it was good to feel protected. Her friends who work in the UK and Philippines tell her about the lack of PPE in their countries. They either had to create their own makeshift “aprons and masks”, or just manage patients without much protection. They told her it was like “going into war without any armour or weapon”. For that, she was very grateful to be here (as I was).
On Day 3, I got another nose swab first thing in the morning. I tried to think more negative thoughts to will the results to be negative (yup I know it doesn’t work that way). The doctor told me via the morning call that if the result came back negative, they would keep me for another test again on Day 4. But if the result came back positive again, they would start the process of moving me to a separate isolation facility, which could be in another hospital, or at a community isolation facility. Either way, I was happy to finally have an end in sight to my stay in the isolation ward. I did not need all this medical attention when I don’t even feel any symptoms other than a nagging headache. There will be people who need it more. By afternoon, the results came back positive again and I had to prepare for my family to bring a clean set of clothes to facilitate my move to the new location.
I’m starting my day 4 right now and decided to consolidate some thoughts. The doctor just told me that they will be moving me tomorrow, but the location is pending. It is good to have a sense of “progress”, even when the results keep coming back positive. I think mentally, I am aching for any form of change. The fact that I am feeling the mental impact reminds me of exactly how privileged and blessed I am.
Here I am, with minimal symptoms and suffering, but placed under the dedicated care of well-protected healthcare professionals I can trust fully. My COVID-19 experience so far has been one of nothing but love and support. Friends and family texting their well-wishes and checking in on me, keeping me occupied and giving me virtual company. I have the luxury of a strong enough internet connection for me to skype my wife almost 24-7 so we don’t feel like we are actually apart. I have direct access to medical support if I need, but more importantly I have access to information. I think in times like this, uncertainties are the chief causes of anxiety. But here, I can talk to a doctor every day and ask them all the question I have – what is normal, what is not normal; what I can expect in the coming days; etc. In many parts of the world, including the UK where I just left, people are not being tested even when they have clear symptoms. And they have to go about every day wondering if what they have is just a common cold, or is actually COVID-19, wondering whether their symptoms might suddenly take a turn for the worse, and whether they will have access to the emergency care they need in time. Here, I am being monitored round the clock for 4 days when I am asymptomatic, before the doctors would even feel assured enough to move me to a separate facility where I will be monitored less. This is a country that prioritises its people, whoever they are, whatever their background is.
The post comprise a series of reflections from Woo Wee Meng, an asymptomatic Covid-19 patient. It was originally posted on his personal Facebook page. Wee Meng has kindly given us permission to compile his reflections here.