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Unveiling hidden narratives of locally-transmitted COVID-19 cases

Over the past year, several stories of COVID-19 patients going in and out of the hospital—or never going out at all—have been featured by the press. Mainstream media, the primary source of information for many, is left to report on these cases based on published research and medical findings.

Most reports, however, focus solely on the development of the disease and its mutation. Stories of the patients whose experiences have contributed to the current body of knowledge on the disease and on the virus are often being left out.

As the narrative on the humanity behind the scientific endeavors proves to be an important piece to the puzzle that is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, The LaSallian talks to two COVID-19 recoverees about their journey before, during, and after their hospital confinement. 

‘Crushed Coke can-sized’ lungs

“When the virus attacked me [and caused] pneumonia, you know how it felt? It’s like having your lungs [reduced to] the size of a crushed Coke can…That was how I felt during the critical times…I thought I was going to die…The difficulty in breathing is really terrible. It’s a terrible feeling talaga,” recollects Jojy Azurin, a recoveree of a severe case of COVID-19. 

Azurin narrates that his symptoms began on March 5 last year—all without having any travel history abroad in the previous weeks. “It started with a suspicion when I had [a] fever…and I was very tired.” He tried to have himself checked upon observation of these symptoms at a government hospital but was rejected due to having “failed” the questionnaire—which inquired about a patient’s travel history, contact with someone who had COVID-19, and more. The healthcare system at that point was in a panic, and only prioritized those with confirmed positive COVID-19 questionnaire results. 

Azurin’s case, however, was one of local transmission, which means that the source of infection was from the reported location—one of the first few of the country. According to the World Health Organization’s Situation Report in March 2020, the Philippines at that point already had five recorded cases of local transmission.

A week later, Azurin still felt very tired and had himself checked at a private hospital in Ortigas. “I told the doctor about my concern, that maybe I might have COVID-19.” He was then sent to be imaged through X-ray. After two days, when the doctors confirmed that he had pneumonia, Azurin found out that it might have been COVID-19.

“They (the hospital management) [then] called the Department of Health (DOH)…They called me, they said that I might have COVID-19, [and that] a team was already on their way to get me my swab test,” he narrates. Upon being rushed to the emergency room along with the endorsement of DOH, Azurin says he was treated as if he already had COVID-19. The next thing he knew, he was in a critical condition and was intubated.

During his confinement, Azurin faced his illness head-on, acknowledging the possibility of his own death. However, instead of resigning himself to what may come, he fought. “It took me a lot of intellectual, mental, and emotional energy to be alive,” he says. “So you cannot say it’s one day at a time eh, it’s one minute at a time. So I was trying to survive one [more] minute.”

In the line of duty

Dr. Christine Joy Castillo, a medical resident at the VRP Medical Center in the City of Mandaluyong details her battle with the coronavirus a year ago. She says her symptoms began on March 12, days after she intubated a patient who had COVID-19. “I initially had LBM for two to three times a day for two days, then high-grade fevers. Because of the fevers, I felt weak. I had occasional coughing episodes then loss of appetite which aggravated my body malaise,” she shares.

Two days later, she was admitted to the hospital she worked in. Though she had initially tested negative for the virus, her condition continued to worsen. “Since my pneumonia is slowly progressing, they advised me to be transferred to an intensive care unit (ICU) for close monitoring,” says Castillo. She was transferred to the department and then intubated on March 23.

Throughout her twelve days breathing through a tube, Castillo turned to prayer. “I felt vulnerable. I also wanted to treat myself. I’m scared, but I hold on to my faith in God, I lifted up everything to Him,” she shares. 

Facilities and medicine cocktails

In March last year, the country was also at the beginning of what soon became a surge of COVID-19 cases. Given that no established set of information was available then, hospitals and medical facilities had to make do with what they had and knew to provide the appropriate facilities and treatments for their patients. 

Azurin says he considers himself lucky given that the COVID-19 facilities were relatively new when he was confined. “[The hospital] created a separate COVID-19 ICU. I feel that I had the best equipment available for the doctors to use on me.” Despite that, he had to wait a long time—eight days, he clarifies—before getting confined.

Castillo, meanwhile, says that since she is an Internal Medicine resident, she was attended to by many consultant doctors, her seniors in the workplace. “Our hospital, as well as our department, helped me a lot going through the most difficult time of my life,” she states. As for treatment, she relates that she was given a lot of antibiotics, antivirals, and four types of solidarity trials for COVID-19.

In terms of the methods of treatments used, Azurin was given the “best possible treatment”. He attributes the adequacy of these practices with the medical field’s knowledge of how to treat COVID-19 cases. “The mortality rate at the time was high because nobody knows [what to do]. Ngayon, the mortality rate has gone down because they already know what to do,” he furthers. 

Among the treatments given to patients, as Azurin recalls, include treatment for the human immunodeficiency virus and for malaria. “I know they also gave me different cocktails of drugs because they were just testing. So to be honest, they don’t know, and I don’t know which of the drugs [were used specifically].”

The road to recovery and beyond

“Lord, my family still needs me,” says Azurin, recalling his prayers during his confinement. After eight days in the ER and five days in the ICU, he received news of his improving condition. “Parang sabi ko, ‘Dapat lang!’ Because I put too much effort!” he remarks.

However, he had also been told that he was the only patient responding positively to treatment, and later on, that he was the only one at the time who had walked out of the ICU alive. The thought of being the sole survivor among his batch of patients was “soul-changing”, says Azurin. “I couldn’t even say that I’m the best person in that room, [that] I’m the best father, the best man or husband…That I deserved to be the one alive. So maybe I have a reason why I am here.”

As for Castillo, she says that her experience as a healthcare professional allowed her to know when she was finally recovering. Her experience as a patient had also left its mark. “My illness changed my perspective as a doctor,” she says. “I can now relate to them and tell them my experience, to be their inspiration.” Months after her recovery, she has resumed her job as a physician, helping patients going through the same illness.

In her capacity as a healthcare worker, Castillo offers some words of reassurance. “One of the most important [things] is that we are now aware of the disease, making us more ready. For example, the availability of [personal protective equipment], face shields, and face masks.” However, she also warns, “Do not take things for granted, and still follow the quarantine measures.”

Azurin also provides some advice, attributing his survival, in part, to exercise. A former member of the track and field varsity team in high school, he had maintained a habit of jogging regularly, which he says kept his lungs strong even under the stress of the infection. He emphasizes three things—to stay strong and calm, to follow the instructions from medical staff, and to reach out and ask for help. “Because when you ask for help, you will get the help from the most unusual sources,” he says. “Do not be afraid to say that you’re afraid.”

By Bea Condes

By Ramon Castañeda

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