45 days in an ambulance

An ambulance drives on the street of Xiaogan, central China's Hubei Province, Feb. 15, 2020. Xiaogan witnessed a snowfall on Saturday as people around the city still fight in the battle against the novel coronavirus. (Xinhua/Hu Huhu)
An ambulance drives on the street of Xiaogan, central China's Hubei Province, Feb. 15, 2020. Xiaogan witnessed a snowfall on Saturday as people around the city still fight in the battle against the novel coronavirus. (Xinhua/Hu Huhu)

by Xinhua writers Lyu Qiuping, Shi Linjing

In seven weeks, Qiao Wuying, 51, made the first phone call to his mother.

The 80-year-old woman said she missed him so much and burst into tears.

Qiao, who is under a 14-day quarantine in central China’s Henan Province, is the director of Zhengzhou Medical Emergency Center in the provincial capital. He had led a fleet of 21 ambulances to Wuhan, the former epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the neighboring Hubei Province.

Tens of thousands of medics and numerous medical vehicles had rushed there to join in treatment and transport of COVID-19 patients, as the megacity reported more than 50,000 confirmed cases.

Qiao received the assignment to Wuhan on the evening of Feb. 4.

He pretended to snore until his wife fell asleep, before getting up to organize the team by phone.

“She would have stayed awake if not hearing my snoring,” he said with a smile. “I hoped she could have a sound sleep for one more night, as I knew she would be sleepless when I was gone.”

Eight hours later, the 81-member team was ready to go.

On hearing Qiao was about to leave for Wuhan, his wife shed tears. His daughter, 25, was supportive. “Take care of yourself before taking care of others,” he was told by his daughter.

The team departed on the morning of Feb. 5 and only made a brief break at a gas station for a refuel. At 2 p.m., they arrived at Wuhan and joined the local medical emergency center, responsible for the emergency treatment and transport of confirmed COVID-19 patients, mostly in serious conditions.

Qiao said it was the toughest mission in his career over the past 24 years.

He organized a WeChat group chat for allocating the vehicles. To his surprise, every time a task was assigned in the group chat, the team members would immediately respond.

Gao Jiankai, one of the team members, remembered how they picked up an old couple living on the seventh floor of a building. To avoid cross-infection, the confirmed cases were not allowed to take an elevator.

“My colleague and I had to carry them one by one on a stretcher, climbing down the stairs,” Gao recalled, adding that they were not able to stand on their feet after finishing the task.

Constant scratching at the staircase had also torn out their protective suits, exposing themselves to infection. Each time before and after an assignment, the team members would check for each other and seal the broken parts of the protective suits with stripes.

“We were walking on the knife-edge, and we could not afford any carelessness,” Qiao said.

To save time and the protective gear, they barely drank water, because each time they went to the toilet, they had to throw the protective suit and put on a new one. The goggles that were worn for a long time also left bruises on their faces.

Over the 45 days in Wuhan, his fleet had transported 2,525 patients day and night, traveling more than 100,000 km, or two and a half circles around the equator.

On Feb. 17, Qiao spent an entire night without sleep, as a man of his team reported a fever of 37.4 degrees Celsius. All the colleagues who had worked with him were quarantined for medical observation.

“It was me who led them there. What if someone was not able to return,” Qiao could not help worrying. “The team, mostly in their 30s, are the backbones of their families.”

Luckily, the man tested negative for COVID-19.

As the epidemic has been basically contained in Wuhan, where no indigenous confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been reported for nine consecutive days as of Wednesday, most medics sent there, including Qiao’s team, are heading home.

Seeing local citizens bowing to the ambulances to bid farewell to the team, some members of the team could not hold back tears.

Qiao did not tell his mother about his trip to Wuhan. When she kept asking the whereabouts of her son, who did not visit her for a long time, she was finally told the truth and fell silent.

“Now that the two-week quarantine will be over soon, I am so desperate to pay her a visit,” Qiao said. Enditem

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