To the Chinese family, Lunar New Year is a joyous occasion. Not unlike New Years celebrations for many families across the world it is full of fun, happiness, and optimism for the days to come. We look to the new year with our hopes and desires to better ourselves with resolutions – more exercise, less sweets, relax more and worry less – knowing we will most likely fumble and fall into old habits but never mind, we do our best.
At the beginning of 2020, I travelled to China to reunite with my family to celebrate the new year. I do not always travel for the celebration, so this year was particularly special. I spent the year prior in excited anticipation as I planned and saved for my trip, but when the time came there was little room for enjoyment. What should have been a happy family gathering was abruptly interrupted by the breaking news of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. The atmosphere turned bitter-sweet as my arrival collided with the announcement. The warm reunion with my mother, sister, and old friends was heavily tainted by the dark cloud of the pandemic. Despite being far from Wuhan, unease and uncertainty lay heavily on us all. The fear of the unknown was overwhelming. Even before the lockdown in China was announced, face masks, hand sanitiser, sterilising spirits, and disinfectant were flying off the shelves. Pharmacies found themselves completely emptied and supermarkets appeared a wasteland. I could not look at my mother happily without the lingering concern for her health in her old age, or my headstrong sister who despite all her strength was still my dear baby sister to be protected. I could only hope my husband and children back home in England weren’t seeing the same struggles but it was not looking hopeful. I thought of my son at risk working in his clinic, and my daughter who was prone to worry and a pain struck my heart. My impending departure took on new meaning.
Upon my arrival home in England, the severity of the virus was made clear: China announced its lockdown and England began its preparations for the virus. With my experience in China, I knew there was little time and much to do. Here, I had a responsibility not only to my family but those around me. I ordered herbs that improved the immune and respiratory systems to support my patients and locals who would come to me for aid – we would have to face to COVICD-19 pandemic together.
On 5th March 2020, I joined a volunteer team for outbreak assistance. Ten days later I received a call from a young student in London.
“Hello? Are you a TCM volunteer doctor?” He spoke in Chinese, his voice was shaky and unsure. He sounded no older than 21. Before I could reply he continued. “I scared that I might have coronavirus, I’m not sure what to do.”
“Don’t worry” I tried to sound as reassuring as possible. “I’ll do what I can to help. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you Daniel, I’m Dr. Edwina. Do you know if you’ve been exposed to the virus?”
“I’m not sure, but I have a sore throat. I feel dizzy and I have a fever. It’s hard to breathe at night.” His breathing was most likely blocked by a swollen throat and tonsils when he was sleeping. “I don’t know what to do, it sounds like the virus doesn’t it? I’m studying in London, there’s so many people here.” There was a childlike worry in his voice which reminded me of my own children. Every mother still sees their child as vulnerable as the day they were born no matter how old they get and to someone somewhere, this was their little boy.
“Yes, unfortunately it does. We cannot know for sure but keep calm. You need to go to the NHS and see a doctor as soon as you can okay?” I walked him through making an appointment and assured him I would be here to help.
The next day, after hours of waiting for an emergency appointment, he was told to self isolate, drink plenty of water, and take paracetamol when he felt his fever rise.
That night I received another call from Daniel.
“I can’t swallow any food, I can’t breathe when I sleep, I’m scared. Will I die in England?” I could feel his suffering, not only through the fear inflicted in his voice but his laboured broken breathing. He was alone in a foreign country with no family. I imagined him as my own son and my heart ached.
“Dear, please don’t worry. You will be better. I will help you I promise. We will do an online consultation right now and I will send you herbal medicine first thing tomorrow okay? I promise.”
At that moment I was not totally confident; I had never seen what COVID-19 looked like up close and I was miles away from London. This was my first suspected case of the virus. I was a senior doctor in the ICU prior to practicing traditional Chinese medicine and had seen my fair share of life threatening conditions, but it had been years since I had been confronted with things unknown in such a way and I was nervous. However, I was determined and knew in my heart that I must support him and diminish his fears.
I followed my own TCM diagnostic method:
1.Deduce his innate physique according to his date of birth;
2. Analyse his tongue to judge the pathogenesis changes;
3. Record his heart rate and breathing rate, to understand deficiencies and sufficiencies;
4. Dialectics according to the current symptoms.
After I collected this information, the diagnosis and treatment principle were ready in my mind. I spent the night blending herbs and sent it the next day. I awaited eagerly for updates on his health, but days went by and I received nothing. Worry set in.
Was he getting better? I called Daniel, no response. Was he worse? No response. Was he already in the ICU? No response. My mind spiralled into dread as fear of the worst flickered but I could not allow myself to think that way. I continued to call him, but still no response until –
“Hello?” A joyful voice on the other end of the line. “I’m so sorry, I’ve been so busy catching up on work. How are you doctor?” I sighed in relief. His voice was clear, the ragged breathing was gone and he sounded like a new person full of life.
“Daniel I was so worried about you!”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you I’ve just had so much university work to catch up with.” I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Did you eat today?”
“Yes, yes I ate very well today. I slept well too, I feel good!”
Days of worry and stress left me as I finally relaxed. We talked about small trivial things, and I was glad to hear him speak of everything but the virus.
A month later we spoke again. He had returned to Shanghai to be with his family. In a time of uncertainty, we need the love and support of family and friends. I think of my children and how lucky they are to be near each other, and how grateful I am for communities that come together to support those who would otherwise be alone.