[FRONTLINERS] After being infected, losing a loved one: Cavite doctor won’t stop treating COVID-19 patients

Mara Cepeda

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[FRONTLINERS] After being infected, losing a loved one: Cavite doctor won’t stop treating COVID-19 patients
The coronavirus brought unimaginable darkness to Dr Cherry Abu's life. She got infected, lost her mother-in-law to the disease, and suffered discrimination. But these won't stop her from returning to the front lines.

Veteran doctor Cherry Abu has been taking care of patients who were infected or are under investigation for the novel coronavirus disease at the De La Salle Health Sciences Institute and the Our Lady of the Pillar Medical Center in Cavite. She knows all too well the risks of her job, being an infectious disease specialist for 15 years now. But nothing prepared her for what came next: she herself caught the coronavirus, followed by her mother-in-law. Days later, her loved one succumbed to the disease. Her family was just starting to grieve when people from their village tried to barricade their house. Despite her ordeal, Abu is still determined to go back on duty once she recovers from COVID-19. This is the story of Dr Cherry Abu, told in her own words.

READ: An Iligan doctor’s ‘elaborate nightmare’ battling coronavirus

(2nd UPDATE) I am an infectious disease specialist and have been in practice for 15 years. I have been in the front lines since the battle started around January in the two hospitals where I practiced. Our first patients, classified as patients under investigation (PUIs), were mostly students and travelers returning from vacation or work outside the country, who fortunately tested negative. 

It was the second week of March when I admitted a patient with fever, cough, and myalgia. He did not travel anywhere in the past month. All his blood tests and chest X-ray results were normal so I treated him for influenza.

On the 4th hospital day, his cough and fever persisted so I requested for a repeat chest X-ray and complete blood count, the results of which were compatible with viral pneumonia and possible COVID-19. I transferred him to an isolation room, requested for a COVID-19 test, and prayed hard. The following day, he was transferred to the intensive care unit and was intubated.   

Two days after, I started having body pains and thought I was having a flare of my rheumatoid arthritis since I did not take my methotrexate the past two weeks, thinking my immune system was down. I did not have fever, had minimal cough which did not bother me, but my appetite in the following days decreased markedly as my body pains continued.

On March 21, I received the news that my patient tested positive for COVID-19 and I consented to having my own test done. 

It was also a few days around this time that my 74-year-old mother-in-law developed a cough, which was later accompanied by anorexia and diarrhea. My husband brought her to the hospital on March 22, and she was admitted as a case of PUI. She was put on antibiotics, hydroxychloroquine, and other supportive management.

On March 23, I woke up at 5 in the morning with the worst headache of my life and vomited several times that, I thought of a leaking aneurysm or a subarachnoid hemorrhage. I asked my husband to bring me to the hospital for a cranial CT scan and some blood tests.

I also instructed him to get someone to bring my child to my sister’s house. I was relieved to see my cranial CT scan was normal, but my chest X-ray and CT scan showed pneumonia. Other markers for possible COVID-19, which included LDH (lactic acid dehydrogenase), serum ferritin, and CRP (C-reactive protein) were significantly elevated. I consented to admission this time. 

I expected to be alone in the hospital as I jokingly told my sister that I felt like a leper. Everything I needed was just left outside my room and I had to do everything else by myself. Of course, I was still able to see my nurse and another infectious disease specialist, my friend, who took care of me.

They came to the room in full personal protective gear. It was difficult knowing Mama was confined in the floor below me. I was sure she had an even more difficult time than me because she was 74 years old and she needed to use a hearing aid. I was so sad because I could not even take care of her. 

On March 27, my mother-in-law deteriorated, was intubated, and over two days, went into acute renal failure. Somehow, despite my illness, I was still a part of the team that managed her because I would ask her doctors to consider my suggestions. But it was a sad turning point when she was intubated and put on a mechanical ventilator – I knew the prognosis of elderly patients who go into both respiratory failure and renal failure.

She died on March 29. Her test for COVID-19 turned out positive.

On March 28, I was discharged after having improved, and was instructed to continue home quarantine for the next 14 days. I also tested positive for COVID-19. 

It’s hard to grieve when a loved one dies of COVID-19 – because how do you? With whom? And where? My mother-in-law died alone, though only physically because we knew the Lord was with her all throughout. Following protocol, she had to be cremated within 24 hours. 

As my husband cried out loud like a child, I froze not knowing how to console him. I wished I could throw myself in his arms, or embrace him, and we could cry together. But I could not do that because I was supposed to keep my distance from everyone. All I could say was, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry that I might have infected her.” He said I should not say that.

My 73-year-old father-in-law collapsed on the chair crying over what happened to our Mama, not fully understanding why such things had to happen that way. He knew Mama was brought to the hospital and that she had pneumonia. But he didn’t understand that she had to be immediately cremated. He was stunned.

Even if my husband had been updating him about Mama not getting better, he was surprised about the cremation, that her ashes would be the only thing he would see of his wife.

He is okay now. They were all tested. My entire household was tested. I’m thankful they are all negative. (READ: Grieving from a distance: Coping with loss due to coronavirus)

Why we needed to be harassed and discriminated against during this time of grief was beyond me. On March 30, at around 9 pm, I heard a commotion outside our house. I could not go down as I was on quarantine from my room but I saw some cars, bright lights, and men. And I heard voices.

It took a few minutes before my husband narrated to me what happened. He said that the barangay captain and the president of the homeowners’ association cordoned off our house, with more than 20 men with them, claiming it was an order from the mayor and the congressman. They did not show any documents pertaining to the order.

They also said that anyone from our house was not allowed to go out as people might get infected, even if they just passed by the street. When my husband asked how we could get our daily needs they said that we should call them first, and they would buy for us, and that we should also entrust to them even our ATM cards if we do not have cash. 

I know that all these were wrong as I am part of the Philippine Society of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (PSMID) and Philippine Hospital Infection Control Society, which, together with the Department of Health (DOH), have been tasked with formulating guidelines on quarantine and infection prevention. I also orient healthcare workers in my hospitals on these guidelines. Never is cordoning off property part of the protocol, even for the DOH, the Philippine National Police, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

I immediately called people – the PSMID president, our hospital administrators, the head of the COVID-19 Response team, and finally got in touch with our mayor. She called me up and explained that these people may not understand quarantine procedures. She advised me about testing other household members and how to procure our daily needs – things that I consented to.

The cordon was removed that same night, this time by 4 people only, without any word – no explanation, no apology, no barangay captain, no homeowners’ association president.

The following day, March 31, the city chief of police came to our house to investigate and my husband gave him details about what transpired the previous night, clarifying that it was not the police who cordoned off our house. He assured us of protection. (READ: Gov’t warns vs discrimination of frontliners, coronavirus patients and suspected cases)

After getting infected with COVID-19, losing a loved one from the disease, and experiencing harassment and discrimination, will I ever go back to treating COVID-19 patients again? The answer is YES. Because I am an infectious diseases specialist and this is what I trained for, what I swore to do, where the Lord called me.

When I am declared fully recovered, I am probably the most ideal person to care for COVID-19 patients, because of the immunity that I have developed which I hope will be permanent. I am waiting for my negative test as I also plan to donate my blood that could be used for convalescent plasma therapy, one of the options being considered to treat COVID-19 patients.

HEROES. Dr Cherry Abu (4th from left) smiles for the camera with other medical professionals in Cavite. Photo courtesy of Abu

As I lie in bed, sit on a chair, and pray in my room, I continue to follow the accounts of my colleagues and other healthcare workers in countless hospitals around the country and around the globe, fighting against COVID-19 at all cost, disregarding their fears and anxieties, risking their lives, sacrificing time with family and friends, because we are called to be frontliners.

Some of my comrades have fallen in the battle. I call myself a wounded soldier, but my wounds are starting to heal. I know we will win this battle with the Lord and the support of everyone. 

I am going back hopefully in the next few weeks – when I have fully recovered, after I have hugged and kissed my only child again, after I have seen the faces of family and friends outside of my bedroom, and after I have given Mama a decent funeral service that she deserves.

At this point, I may never understand everything that happened to me and my family, but I rest in my understanding that God is sovereign and that He never makes mistakes. As everyone continues to do their part in putting an end to this pandemic, frontliners or not, I truly hope that we will all come out as better human beings after – kinder, grateful, forgiving, more responsible. – Rappler.com

Editor’s Note: Rappler interviewed Abu on April 6, 2020. The story above is a combination of Abu’s written submission and the transcription of the interview, with all quotes translated to English.

TOP PHOTO: DUTY CALLS. Dr Cherry Abu, garbed in her white coat, poses for the camera. Photo courtesy of Abu

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.