Shut out: Virus pushes China’s seriously ill to back of queue

As focus turns to combating the coronavirus, people with life-threatening diseases say their needs are being neglected.

Hubei, China
Medical workers in protective suits help transfer the first group of patients into the newly completed Huoshenshan temporary field hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province [Xinhua via AP]

Chengdu, China – Authorities in China are stepping up efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, deploying thousands of nurses and doctors to the outbreak’s epicentre and building new hospitals at breakneck speed to treat the tens of thousands infected.

The virus, which has killed more than 1,100 people, has stretched China‘s healthcare system, leaving not only those who have the virus, but also those battling even more severe and life-threatening diseases without access to medical care or even the drugs they need.

In Wuhan, whose 11 million residents are living under a virus-related lockdown, many people requiring treatment for conditions such as cancer and kidney disease say their medical needs have been neglected because of the focus on containing the outbreak. The virus, officially named Covid-19, can cause pneumonia and, in some cases, multiple organ failure and death.

Ruyi Wan is among those shut out from the system.

The 20-year-old woman was diagnosed with leukaemia in May last year, and was unable to beat the disease despite undergoing three rounds of chemotherapy.

“Her symptoms persisted: the treatment made her vomit, develop ulcers, and lose hair,” her mother Juan Wan said.

“She’s not afraid of all these, but she is terrified of the pain. Her legs hurt, her chest hurts, her stomach hurts … She is in too much pain to even stand straight or go to the bathroom by herself.”

In December, doctors recommended Wan try chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, in which a patient’s immune cells are altered to attack cancer cells, followed by a bone marrow transplant. But in January, the doctors came with the bad news:  the bone marrow bank in Wuhan had been closed because of the viral outbreak.

Treatments on hold

Wan’s parents tried to seek help in neighbouring Hebei Province, but were told that no hospitals were accepting patients from Wuhan.

Her mother said the news was devastating for Wan.

“Please let me die! I can’t bear this pain anymore!” her mother recalled the young woman telling her last week.

Wan’s case is not uncommon in Wuhan, where 28 of the 146 hospitals in the city have been designated to treat patients infected with the new virus.

A doctor at Wuhan’s Tongji Hospital, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the outbreak has affected treatment for most other ailments.

“Most surgeries have been postponed due to the large number of unconfirmed coronavirus cases, [and] we have to be wearing full gear to do the normally basic surgeries, and we simply don’t have enough supplies,” she said.

“As a result, it’s unfortunate that many patients, including cancer patients, are not getting proper treatment.”

Other patients who are struggling to obtain medical treatment include people who need dialysis for late-stage kidney disease.

Xiaohong Min, a diabetic woman who contracted the coronavirus while also receiving treatment for kidney failure, messaged a support group set up on WeChat on February 8 saying she did not know “how long” she could last, according to messages seen by Al Jazeera.

The group, one of a number that have appeared on the app, is called “non-pneumonia patients seeking help” and includes about 200 people.

It was not the coronavirus that was killing her, according to the 42-year-old woman, who described her symptoms as mild. She said she feared for her life because no hospital could give her dialysis treatment.

“No hospitals are accepting coronavirus-infected patients except for the designated hospitals, but all of those are so packed and I’ve been waiting for six days to get hospitalised,” Min wrote to the group.

“My pneumonia symptoms are not severe, but because I haven’t had dialysis for so long, the toxin has been building up in my body for almost a week, and I haven’t eaten for four days … I don’t even need to get admitted to hospitals; I just need to get dialysis once and that will help me get through another three or four days.”

After almost nine days without dialysis, Min said on Tuesday that she had finally received treatment for her kidneys at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

Medical workers at several hospitals in Wuhan told Al Jazeera that there were a large number of dialysis patients who have not been getting proper treatment since the coronavirus outbreak.

“I have been constantly trying to link my patients to other hospitals after our dialysis centre was closed due to the outbreak,” said Ling Ding, head nurse at the dialysis centre of Wuhan’s Hanyang Hospital. “But all places are packed, so it’s an incredibly difficult situation.”

Hoping for a miracle

Al Jazeera contacted Wuhan’s health commission for comment, but officials had not responded at the time of publication.

Jianhua Wang, deputy chief physician of the nephrology department at Wuhan Central Hospital, told Al Jazeera the “government had closed off the dialysis centres in all the designated hospitals to treat fever patients for the purpose of avoiding cross-infection.”

He added: “We are aware of the large number of dialysis patients and are working around the clock to make sure they get treatment while minimising risk of infection.”

The decision to shut down public transport has also affected those with chronic diseases who need regular medication, including people with conditions such as HIV [human immunodeficiency virus] .

“I haven’t been able to get my drugs for three days because of the suspension of public transport, and I don’t know where I could get the drugs,” wrote one person with HIV in a WeChat group using the the pseudonym Xiaohui.

People with underlying conditions are also those with more vulnerability to the virus, and the WeChat groups are a way for them to find the support – medical, emotional or financial – that they need. 

“When a grain of ash of the age falls on the shoulder of one person, it becomes a mountain,” Shing Di, who started the group where Min posted her plea, told Al Jazeera, quoting an old Chinese saying. “People are suffering and it’s not only unethical but also impossible for me to look away.”

While Min, was finally able to get dialysis, leukaemia patient Wan Ruyi continues to wait.

“Ruyi is too weak to be transported now,” her mother said.

“But we are still waiting – I hope for a miracle because Ruyi is so young and has so many dreams. We can’t let her die.”

Source: Al Jazeera