The lobby is the best place to see the cherry blossoms in the hospital’s courtyard. Most of the cherry blossoms have wilted, and green leaves have started to emerge. Just finishing her shift, nurse Eunmi Kim (41) sits on the lobby’s balustrade and stares vacantly at the withering cherry blossoms. “The cherry blossoms have all wilted. What a shame...”
The medical team at Keimyung University Daegu Dongsan Hospital, which was designated as a frontline hospital in the fight against Covid-19, is not happy to see the arrival of spring, and even less so the coming onset of summer. The protective clothing, which is hot to wear even in the depths of winter, feels even heavier, and the number of people coming and going from Seomun Market, across from the hospital, is steadily increasing.
Right now, Daegu Dongsan Hospital is treating over 220 Covid-19 patients. It is the frontline in the fight to stop the spread of the virus in the Daegu-Gyeongbuk “super epicenter.” As a Covid-19 exclusive hospital, there are no non-covid19 patients. There are about 330 people on the medical team, which includes doctors, nurses, nurse’s aides and carers, wearing protective clothing and looking after the patients on the ward. However, these are not the only ones keeping the hospital running. There are also those workers who, in times more normal, are not as visible: logistics teams, involved in the distribution and transfer of relief supplies; cleaners, those involved in the disposal of medical waste; nutritionists, whose job is to plan and distribute meals; and security staff. These “shadow workers,” most of whom are temporary employees, are all doing their part.
After gaining permission from the hospital, over the course of four days we met and covered these people who are at the frontline of this fight for life. We entered the hospital, but not the wards that were under cohort isolation. In addition to those already working for Daegu Dongsan Hospital, medical teams and volunteers have come from all over the country to lend a hand.
The parking lot’s office is the only entrance into the hospital. After crossing the parking lot, we come to a container that has been converted into a dressing room, where the medical staff change into their personal protective equipment (PPE). When entering the container, one can immediate feel the high temperature. For all 40 staff on any given shift to rotate on time, about ten people use this container dressing room at once to get dressed. After the medical staff have put on their level D PPE, they put on shoe covers and a double layer of gloves. Then they apply band-aids around their nose and eyes, to reduce the pain of the goggles and N95 masks which place a lot of pressure on their faces. Recently, some have taken to wearing a face shield, made of a clear film that covers the whole face. However, because the face shield curves their field of vision and is not widely available, some nurses prefer the goggles, despite the pain.
Staff working in the ICU must stop by yet another container to put on a PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator) over their protective clothing. As these staff are in closer contact with the patients in the ICU, goggles and masks are not enough to ensure their safety. Staff working in the ICU have a pump attached to their back, which supplies purified air through a hood that covers their entire face.
Around the dressing room container, messages of support have been left in markers. A message that reads “Do your best today! ♡” written in the Honam dialect, from the other side of the country, catches the eye. In total about 460 volunteer medical staff have come from around the country to help out at Daegu Dongsan Hospital after staff shortages were reported in the news. The city of Daegu has provided accommodation for this outside labor, and a shuttle bus takes them to and from work each day. Even some medical staff who live in Daegu have decided to stay in this accommodation, for fear they may be infected.
We spoke to one nurse, who wished to be unnamed. “The city of Daegu originally said they would pay our wages every two weeks, but I haven’t gotten anything for three weeks. It’s the same case with the living support fund (a government fund for people on low incomes). I came here in the middle of March, but there are others who have been here since the beginning of March without receiving any wages or living support funds. People like me, who haven’t received any funds, we are using our own money to pay for our accommodation.” Another nurse added, “I am a little anxious, but I don’t think the government will try to pocket our money in a time like this. Still, the longer it takes those on unpaid leave to get their funds, the more difficult it must be for them.”
On the way from the dressing room to the ward, the only sound heard is that of the medical staff’s overshoes dragging on the asphalt. It is hard to speak while wearing a mask, and even harder to hear through the protective hoods that cover the staff’s ears. When speaking to older patients, who can’t hear well, the staff must raise their voices as much as possible and pronounce each word concisely. “Wearing protective clothing restricts our vision, so we must turn our whole bodies. This makes every movement bigger, which is very tiring.” explained nurse Eunhyang Kim (46). As all we can see are a pair of eyes behind the PPE, it’s very hard to tell each other apart. The stickers on the staff’s chests reading “head nurse”, “nurse”, or “nurse’s aide” are one way to distinguish staff. The patients, who spend all day and night on the ward, have also learned to identify staff from their eyes, their voices or their physique.
No bathroom breaks while on the ward
Shifts in a hospital are divided into day, evening and night. As the manpower situation is different every day, staff only learn which shift they’ll be working one day in advance. They are divided into an A team and a B team, which take turns working and resting for two hours at a time. Once two work-rest cycles have been completed, the shift is over. Even if a team is resting, if there is an emergency on the ward they may have to don their protective clothing and head back to work. The heightened tension never loosens up.
In reality, medical staff can rest for little more than an hour between work shifts. 30 minutes before heading back to the wards, they must assemble, take a headcount, and put on their protective clothing. Even after handing over, it takes time for the team off the shift to carefully remove and dispose of their protective clothing. During their hour of rest, staff use the bathroom, check their cell phones and grab a snack or a meal. There have been a lot of food donations, from simple snacks like energy bars and chocolate to meals as pizza and fried chicken. However, for staff that must head back to the wards, they can’t eat or drink as much as they’d like, no matter how hungry or thirsty they may be. This is because once they have put on their PPE, it becomes difficult to use the bathroom. Not until their shift is completely finished, can they eat and drink to their heart’s content.
Beyond the wards, at the top of a low hill, there is an emergency operation facility, complete with showers, a restaurant and resting rooms for the medical staff to use. At the entrance to the facility, security staff check the temperature of everyone entering the building (according to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, 241 health workers have been confirmed to have caught Covid-19 as of the 8 April). The security staff also offer words of encouragement to workers coming off their shifts. Upon entering the facility, letters from all over the country, including Seoul, Sejong, Gwangju, Ulsan, Tongyeong, etc, can be seen covering the walls. Hundreds of letters in various styles of writing are stuck to the walls, from a scribbly message reading “We can beat the virus!” sent by a child, to the neat writing of a self-employed company owner, which reads “although things will be difficult for me in the days to come, I support you, for whom things are difficult today.” The medical staff stop in front of the wall to read the messages from time to time.
For the medical staff, being together with their colleagues, caring for patients on the brink of life and death, is just as encouraging as the words and letters of support from citizens. Although they’ve only worked together for a few days, at most a month, many of them will still keep in touch going forward. On 8 April, nurse Jandi Kim (29), who had just finished her shift, commented, “although I hope it doesn’t happen, of course, but even if we found ourselves in this situation again, I would volunteer to come once more.” Sitting next to her, nurse Boyeon Kim (27) remarked, “in that case, let’s come together.” For the two nurses, who had travelled to Daegu from Busan and Ulsan, it was their last shift before heading back to their regular lives.
translated by Daniel Garrett
translation supervised by Beckhee Cho