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Alumni Stories - Ho Sheng Yi

I was visiting friends who were studying at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris from late February to mid-March. I must have picked up the virus while on a road trip with them to Charmonix just near the Italian border. A large group of INSEAD students, peers of my friends, had traveled to Charmonix a few days earlier to ski. This was in the week of 14 March, when Italy had the most infections in Europe. There were reports coming in that Charmonix was a potential hotspot, and that Covid-19 was spreading quickly across Europe.

I cut my trip short and took the earliest available flight back on the 16 March to Singapore. I arrived back on the afternoon of the 17th, and woke up that night shivering, drenched with sweat and feeling hot and cold at the same time under my blanket. That afternoon I called for an ambulance, which took me to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) in central Singapore. The waiting area is set up like a school exam hall with blue plastic tables and chairs and similarly spaced apart. A long wait for test results showed chest X-Ray was clear, and my nasal swab came back negative and I was sent home with some Panadol. This was now in the early hours of the morning of the 19 March.

I lay in bed the next eight days trying to recover from the fever and sweats, and distancing myself from my family members, hiding in my room They would pass me food by placing it on the table outside my bedroom door. I asked for detergent and a kitchen sponge so I could clean a set of cutlery, plate, and bowl I kept in my bathroom. I used a little consumer-grade oximeter my aunt bought for us. My blood oxygen level was at 90%, which she said was low; a normal, healthy person should be 95% at the lowest. I called for an ambulance again. This was on 27 March.

I was sent to the NCID again, and the chest X-ray showed patches in my lungs - I had pneumonia. I was immediately warded. The results for the nasal swab test came in the next morning via a call to my bedside phone from my attending doctor. She said I tested positive for Covid-19. I called my family and told them the news. They were naturally very worried. My extended family soon sent in their well wishes as the news spread.

I was administered Augmentin for the pneumonia and Paracetamol for the fever. I felt much better very quickly. I was approached to be a candidate for the Remdesivir drug trial and another local virus study. The doctor explained it was a double-blind experiment, meaning there was a 50/50 chance I'd get the drug or a placebo. I accepted and signed the consent forms.

My oxygen levels dropped below what was considered safe so the doctors and nurses moved me to the ICU on 30 March, around lunchtime. I spent about 48 hours there. My oxygen support levels with from 2 liters per minute on the nose tubes to 4 liters in the normal ward, and then to 50% concentration on the oxygen mask in the ICU, the type that covers the nose and mouth. If my oxygen levels dipped any further they told me I'd have to be intubated, meaning I'd have to be sedated to have a tube inserted into my lungs. Fortunately we didn't get to that stage. Arriving in the ICU, there was a flurry of activity as 3 or more nurses or doctors on either side of me swiftly moved to attach monitors to my upper torso and right wrist, and most painfully, to insert a needle into an artery on my left wrist. This was to take freshly oxygenated blood that's come from the heart for tests. A needle into the artery hurts much more than one into a vein, because it has many more nerve endings and resides deeper within the surrounding tissue.

The ratio of nurses attending to ICU patients is inverted. Where in normal wards there is roughly 1 nurse to every 10 non-critical patients, there are roughly 5 nurses per ICU patient. It shows in the attention I got every few hours when they came in to take my vitals even at night when I was asleep. I even had chest X Rays done in bed around 4am. Instead of showering they would wipe me down once daily with some kind of sterile wipes which were cold in the air conditioning. They would make me roll over and lie prone on my stomach every 3 hours for half an hour each time. I was told this technique was for pneumonia patients' lungs to be allowed to expand through the back, which helped the healing process. I would have to continue doing this even after leaving the ICU.

Being on the oxygen mask also meant I couldn't use the toilet despite the ICU room having one attached. I had to stand next to my bed urinate into a cardboard urinal since I still had to be connected to the machinery and monitors in the ICU. My condition stayed stable for the rest of the day, so I wasn't worried or scared. I'm sure the same couldn't be said for my family. Through WhatsApp my parents also told me they were regularly updated on my condition through calls from the doctors at the ICU every few hours. My condition stayed stable for about 48 hours and on Wednesday, the 1st of April, April Fool's Day, I was moved back to a normal ward. Not a bad way to start the new month.

I tested negative for the virus that day, and two days after, and again another two days after. I was discussing with the doctor doing her rounds when I first tested negative, theorizing that I got the Remdesivir drug rather than a placebo. I could also go to the toilet with an oxygen tank I could wheel around, and even take showers when I wanted. I had to inform a nurse before I decided to do so though, so they could remove the monitor strapped on my wrist with wires and leads on my upper torso. They would have to stick a new set on after I was done showering. They gradually decreased my oxygen support from 4 liters per minute to 2 liters, then 1, then took me off support. The change in oxygen support would happen after the rounds and they would decide based on the data from the 24-hour monitor data and the data from the rounds.

It took me 5 days to get to zero oxygen support from 50% concentration in the ICU, and they monitored me for another 2 days before discharging me. I spent a total of 11 days hospitalised, which I count as extremely lucky. In the local news it was reported an elderly man spent 13 days awake in the ICU, longer than my entire stay. There was one case of a foreign labourer who spent almost 2 months in the ICU with a good portion of the time sedated and missed the birth of his child.

The funny thing is that my family had a 14-day strict quarantine order issued the day I was hospitalized, and my hospital stay was shorter than their quarantine. This meant I could go out and buy food and groceries and other essentials while they could not. Fortunately while I was lying in bed at home before my hospital stay, they had already stocked up on plenty of essential items. With a lockdown in place, we ordered in some of our favourite food from a nearby hawker to celebrate.

On the plus side, I'm now part of a group of survivors who are now immune to the virus for an unknown length of time. Outside my job I've signed up for and been accepted to the Singapore Healthcare Corps, a volunteer scheme comprised of both private sector health professionals, and nonhealthcare professionals such as myself. Since I'm immune, I'm safer around the infected - unless for some reason I slip up at work, I (might?) have another layer of protection.

Stay safe out there!

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