Sars fight on the frontline was a torrid experience of fatigue, fear, sweat, stink and danger, Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

Sars fight on the frontline was a torrid experience of fatigue, fear, sweat, stink and danger

This article is more than 12 months old

A doctor's first-hand account of the 2003 outbreak sheds some light on current fight against Covid-19

Back in 2003, when Singapore had just diagnosed its first few cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), I was a junior doctor working in a large hospital and was posted to the Sars ward.

We worked in two shifts - the first ran from 8am to 5pm, and the second from 5pm to 8am.

My colleagues and I were assigned the permanent night shift. By the time we got home and dragged our destroyed bodies into bed, it was already 10am.

Five hours of sleep later, we had to get ready to head back to the battlefield.

This went on seven days a week, with no weekends and no public holidays.

Some of us were lucky we had a home to go back to, although my wife invariably made me walk straight from the front door into the shower where I scrubbed myself down with antibacterial soap while she doused bleach over my clothes.

Some of my colleagues were not allowed or did not dare to go home for fear of placing their families at risk. This went on as long as we were in the trenches battling Sars.

The ward work was no walk in the park, either.

The first thing we did when we reported for work was to change out of our civilian attire into a white T-shirt and a pair of unflattering sweatpants. This was to reduce the risk of contaminating our clothes with the virus out of the hospital. The clothes provided by the hospital smelled overpoweringly of a combination of bleach and some extremely caustic detergent, and was prickly and itchy to put on.

But honestly, that was the least of our problems.

In the Sars ward, each patient was housed in individual rooms. Before entering the room, we had to put on full personal protective equipment (PPE), gear commonly mentioned these days in the time of Covid-19.

This consisted of a waterproof gown, gloves, hair cover, N95 mask, goggles, and if we were lucky, a respirator hood connected to an air pump strapped to the back of our waist like what Dustin Hoffman wore in the 1995 movie Outbreak.


It was a difficult time. Some wards had the respirator hoods, some did not.

Did I also mention that the corridors of the ward were not air-conditioned? Only the rooms were.

So by the time I had all this equipment on, I was uncomfortable and sweating like a pig.

Dressed like spacemen, the registrar, the ward nurse and I would enter the patient's room for our rounds and tasks.

If you think putting on the PPE was bad, taking it off felt 10 times worse.

As a safety protocol, we had to assume that the Sars virus would have contaminated the outer surface of all the elements of the PPE. Therefore, everything had to be removed in a particular manner and in a particular sequence in order not to potentially come into contact with the virus.

There are protocols for the PPE, and there are proper and legal procedures everyone had to follow to ensure things worked like clockwork to reduce errors and problems.

So even in the heat of Sars, we ensured that every procedure was dutifully followed.

Losing patients was painful, but losing colleagues who were also in the fight was something else.

One of our surgical colleagues, a universally beloved man, got infected by Sars.

One evening, we heard he was not doing well and had to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU). While being wheeled into ICU on his bed, he gave all of us a thumbs up. That would turn out to be the last time we saw him alive.

One of the common denominators between Covid-19 and Sars is shortness of breath as the virus wreaks havoc on the lungs.

Having shortness of breath is one of the worst discomforts. Those of you who have suffered from severe asthma or bronchitis probably know what I am talking about.

For those of you who have not, it may be hard for you to imagine how terrible the sensation of not being able to take a full breath is.

Trust me - it is absolute torture.

When your lungs start to fill with fluid and stiffen due to a viral pneumonia, you feel an extreme shortness of breath that stretches on for hours.

The last moments would see patients gripping their loved ones hard, while they gasp for their last breath and endure pain for the final time with tears streaming down their cheeks. I hope nobody has to live through such an experience again.

When a virus infects a host, one of two things can happen.

Either the host's immune system kills the virus or the virus kills the host.

Either way, the virus dies in the host.

For the virus to survive beyond this host, it has to infect a new host. If we stop spreading it to one another, the virus stops spreading.

So let us stay apart, to keep everyone safe and alive.

The writer is a resident doctor at DTAP Clinic Novena and was part of the Sars task force in Singapore General Hospital