We Are Not Heroes

The point of our battle against the coronavirus is not how many patients we have admitted or how many resources we’ve used. We’re not trying to be heroes in this fight; we just want to do what we can. We don’t want family members’ hearts to break, and we want to take good care of their family for them.

Chao You-chen, superintendent of Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital, is thankful to the entire staff at the hospital for taking good care of COVID patients, serving at an enhanced quarantine hotel, and staffing COVID vaccine stations.

A COVID-19 crisis started unfolding in Taiwan in mid-May 2021.

I remember that on May 9, 2021, we were in Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital’s lobby, taking part in a Buddha Day ceremony and listening to a talk given by Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Though COVID had upended life in most other parts of the world, our life in Taiwan had remained relatively peaceful. However, it seemed just a moment later we found ourselves swept up in a COVID storm.

In the second half of May and early part of June, Taiwan recorded a daily average of 400 to 500 new infections. Six thousand people were diagnosed with the coronavirus in less than two weeks. Most of the new cases were reported in Taipei and New Taipei City. Ambulance sirens were heard day and night, stirring up panic and anxiety. I’m very thankful to our Tzu Chi volunteers for helping us set up an outdoor COVID screening station near the entrance of our hospital in as short as two days and nights. This was in response to a huge demand for tests. Many people tested positive at that screening station.

Though we had set up COVID care units early on during the pandemic, we soon ran short of space. We decided to expand our facilities to accommodate more COVID patients, but with the epidemic raging, it was difficult to find workers willing to come into the hospital to set up more COVID care units for us. A shortage of building materials compounded our difficulties. Fortunately, Tzu Chi volunteer Lin Qing-hua (林青華) brought his workers to our hospital to help us out. Even his daughter came to help. Lin was injured in the rush to get the facilities finished, but after his wound was bandaged, he went right on working. With the help of Lin and his team, our second intensive care unit (ICU), with a capacity of 33 beds, was soon completed for severely ill COVID patients.

We started taking part in a daily videoconference on May 23 with the team at Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien that was coordinating and organizing the foundation’s anti-coronavirus efforts. Master Cheng Yen reminded us almost every day to be sure to properly wear our protective gear when we took care of patients. “You must be well protected to protect others,” the Master said time and again. I could feel how worried she was about our safety.

I reiterated to my coworkers during our anti-coronavirus meetings at our hospital that it was our duty as health professionals to rise to this COVID challenge and do our best. I told everyone that behind every patient was a family and that we could prevent many heartbreaks by doing our best to save lives.

By September, we had cared for 456 COVID patients, 166 of whom had been admitted into the ICU. Some older patients suffered from severe shortness of breath; they felt very tired and decided against resuscitation. One such patient was a man in his 90s. Refusing to be intubated, he breathed his last beside his son, who was in his 70s and also a COVID patient. Some patients received phone calls from other hospitals informing them of the deaths of their family members. All they could do was cry into their cell phones—they couldn’t even go to their loved ones’ deathbeds. They didn’t know if they themselves would live to see tomorrow. There is no way to overstate the level of sadness and heartbreak brought on by this pandemic.

One of the patients admitted into our hospital was an 85-year-old man. He loved his wife very much. Despite being hard of hearing and nearly blind, he visited a store near Lungshan Temple in Wanhua, Taipei, to buy steamed stuffed buns for his wife, who had just had knee replacement surgery and was recuperating at home. Little did the man know he was exposing himself to grave danger. (Wanhua was on its way to becoming a COVID hotspot—some people there had already contracted the coronavirus at the time but didn’t know it.) After his trip to Wanhua, he was diagnosed with COVID. Because his family couldn’t tend to his needs at his bedside, the nurses at our hospital became like granddaughters to him, giving him support and cheering him on. The man told our nurses: “I must beat this illness. I have a wife to take care of.”

Despite his strong will to live, his blood oxygen level and blood pressure plummeted one night. A nurse set his cell phone up so he could talk to his family. “Don’t worry, grandpa,” a family member said. “We’ll take good care of grandma.” He passed away that weekend. Our medical workers took his passing hard. How they had wished to send every patient home safe and happy.

A nurse in a COVID care unit at Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital requested medical supplies by posting notes on a windowpane. Communicating their needs this way helped them reduce their trips into and out of the ward.

He is family

The second half of May saw an influx of COVID patients to the emergency rooms of various hospitals, to the point that no emergency room could take any more patients. It was the same at our hospital. Even so, text messages appealing for help never stopped coming in. Seeing how jam-packed our ER was, I suddenly had an idea: “Let’s turn all available wards into ERs.” So, just like that, we started sending people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 to our wards for first aid. My reasoning was that with each patient we took in, we might be able to save one more person from the clutches of death.

A 27-year-old COVID patient had kidney issues and needed dialysis. He was also mentally and physically disabled. He had not had dialysis in two weeks when our medical staffers discovered him outside the emergency room. We put him on dialysis that night. Just a few days later, the young patient’s condition had worsened to the point where he needed to be intubated and receive intensive care. We continued to provide dialysis after he was transferred to the ICU. Fortunately, his age gave him an advantage in his battle against COVID, and he was eventually transferred back into a regular COVID ward. He didn’t have family around. The head nurse at his ward not only administered dialysis treatment but washed his hair and body, taking care of him as if he were her son. It wasn’t until he was about to be discharged that a social worker at our hospital located his family. Sadly, his father had been unemployed for years and couldn’t take care of him. Arrangements were thus made for the young man to be placed in a nursing home.

In late May, a COVID-19 positive expectant mother, 32 weeks into her pregnancy, underwent Caesarean surgery in the positive-negative pressure operating room in our hospital. This had been her first pregnancy, but the joy of being with her first child was compromised by COVID. Her family members had all gone into isolation; she had arrived at our hospital alone with some simple luggage. It was easy to imagine her uneasiness and anxiety.

Our medical team called an emergency family meeting for her. Health professionals from obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, and pediatrics met her family online and assured them she would receive their best care at our hospital. “We see her as our family member,” the team said. Uncertain if she would live to see her baby, the expectant mother recorded something for her baby before she was intubated.

On the day of the Caesarean surgery, a premature newborn weighing 1,565 grams was brought into the world amidst everyone’s best wishes. The mother and daughter had both fared well. The first thing the mother did when she woke up was pick up her tablet computer to look at her baby. The love she had for her baby was really something to behold. Happily, they later both made it out of our hospital safe and healthy.

On May 28, something happened that left an indelible impression on our medical workers. Early that morning, a man’s heartrending, thunderous cries were heard coming out from a COVID-19 care unit. The man’s father had just died of COVID in another hospital. The two were very close; the man’s mother had passed away when he was three years old, so he had been brought up alone by his father. About seven or eight years earlier, he had even donated part of his liver to his father. It broke the man’s heart that his father had survived the major liver transplant surgery only to succumb to the pandemic. Our nurses comforted him as best they could. They encouraged him to be strong for his three-year-old son, who was waiting for him to recover and come home. When the man was about to be discharged, he said he was deeply grateful for the care given to him by our medical team.

Another man, Mr. Cheng, 49, had long taken care of his mother, who was a dialysis patient. The two of them and Mr. Cheng’s sister contracted the coronavirus one after another. When Cheng was admitted into our hospital, his mother phoned him from another hospital, saying to him: “We’re together in this fight. Let’s do our best to get well.” Sadly, she passed away some time later.

Cheng weighed 134 kilograms (295 pounds) and suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. His lungs turned white as his COVID condition deteriorated. He was moved into the ICU and put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (better known as ECMO, a machine that takes over the work of the lungs and heart.) He even developed septic shock, but eventually recovered and made it out of the hospital. He said his time in the ICU was like being in a dream. All he could remember was Dr. Su Wen-lin (蘇文麟), director of the internal medicine ICU, performing phlegm suction procedures on him and wiping away his tears, and nurses cleaning him up after he had diarrhea.

Cheng’s sister said that her father used to donate 300 New Taiwan dollars (US$10) every month to Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital as a gesture of support, but she had no idea Tzu Chi had a hospital in Taipei too. “I often received Dr. Su’s emergency phone calls at night during my brother’s hospitalization,” she said. “It was as if the director didn’t need to sleep at all.” She expressed wishes that she and her brother could also help others in the future, just like what Tzu Chi volunteers had been doing.

Mr. Zhuang, a COVID patient at Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital who was about to be discharged, thanked a nurse for taking care of him. The nurse encouraged him to pay the love forward. Courtesy of Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital

We become stronger when we give

In our COVID wards, our nurses washed elderly patients, changed their diapers, and cleaned their lesions. They washed their hair too. “It’s really nothing,” they said. “We do that when we have a free moment at night.” Though they made it sound like it was nothing, it took more than an hour to wash a patient’s hair.

Among the COVID patients our hospital took in were people who were addicted to drugs or had dementia. Our medical workers needed to show special patience with these patients and calm them when they were agitated or displayed aggressive behaviors. One of the ways they soothed these patients was reading Jing Si Aphorisms with them. (Jing Si Aphorisms is a collection of short sayings by Master Cheng Yen.) Patients were obviously appreciative of our team’s care for them. When they had recovered and were about to leave our hospital, some of them knelt down before our nurses to express their gratitude, while others took deep bows or gave our staffers big hugs. They had developed family-like bonds with our healthcare providers during their stay in our hospital.

According to media reports, Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital was one of the hospitals in Taiwan that took in the most COVID patients during that outbreak. We were not trying to be heroes, we just wanted to do what we could. What’s most important was that we learned during that critical time how to mindfully put our love into action. We knew Master Cheng Yen was worried about us and all patients. So we reminded each other to take good care of ourselves so we would be available to safeguard the health of every patient.

If we count the patients at our enhanced quarantine hotel, we ended up serving more than 900 patients during that critical period. What’s more, no in-hospital infections occurred. I’m grateful for all our staff’s work. We become stronger when we give. The pandemic will eventually be over, but we won’t forget what we’ve learned. We will use what we’ve learned to make us stronger and better able to assume bigger responsibilities and safeguard lives.

January 2022