Isolated But Not Alone

When I opened the door of the apartment I saw the paramedic dressed in full protective gear like a zombie movie. It suddenly hit me – this is real, writes Hugh Mason.

It had begun 24 hours earlier, when I noticed I couldn’t smell the orange my wife was peeling next to me. I went back to the local doctor who had seen for mild flu symptoms and learned that I had anosmia, loss of the sense of smell, fast becoming recognised as a common feature in many Covid-19 cases. A chest X-ray at Singapore General Hospital showed no sign of the pneumonia that would mean I was yet on the path to the deadly form of the disease, but a swab test had revealed my body was invaded by aliens.

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SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19

Waiting at home for the test results, my first thoughts were for my wife of 20+ years and our 13yo son. I went into Dad mode, thinking: how can I make this a positive opportunity for my son to learn resilience, whatever happens to me?

I reached back to my first career as a science film-maker and told him the virus was so small that 500 of them side by side would fit across the width of a human hair. Neither alive nor dead, if these tiny alien invaders had got inside my body they would have hijacked the machinery of my living cells and, within hours, tricked it into making millions of copies of themselves. I would shed these copies in my breath and might have already infected my family and folk around me. Most people infected would suffer only mild symptoms but others might die. I tried to put it as kindly as I could but felt I had to tell him the truth. There was a chance, if I became severly affected, that we might never be able to see each other face to face again.

A call from the Ministry of Health came early next morning. It looked like I was positive. Then 45 minutes later, I opened the door to a paramedic dressed in full protective gear like a zombie movie. My Dad-the-Educator disguise fell instantly as it hit me – this is real.

“Patient Entering Level 1, Standby”

I imagine that Queens and Presidents are used to having corridors cleared and security personnel posted when they enter buildings. So I wish I could say that hearing the words “Patient Entering Level 1, Standby” spoken in hushed tones into a walkie talkie as I arrived at Singapore General Hospital made me feel like a boss. All I could think of was the Chernobyl drama I’d watched a few weeks earlier. I felt radioactive.

It takes a surprisingly long time for an elevator to rise 8 stories when you are on your own. The doors opened and another masked person with a walkie-talkie was waiting. It dawned on me—this is normal for these guys—Singapore has been planning every move since SARS in 2003. This complex protocol, rehearsed no doubt again and again, plays out for real every time a patient comes in. The scale of it felt humbling.

We waited at the entrance to Ward 68, one of Singapore’s specially equipped isolation wards for infectious diseases. Yet another set of doors hissed open and a nurse in full protective gear ushered me down a very medical-looking corridor and into an airlock. Through the second doors she told me “You can take your mask off now.”

Years ago, I made a documentary film about alien encounters. Feeling blur, as we say in Singapore, this felt like an alien abduction. I remembered two things about the people I had interviewed. They all described feeling totally bewildered by the experience and, reassuringly, the alients felt friendly. That was how I felt now as I looked around the room I could not leave. Once the airlock doors went psst like Star Trek, I would be on my own except every four hours, when a friendly alien dressed in full protective gear came to visit with food and to do medical tests.

Then came the interrogations. But although they too seemed like something from another world, they were also friendly. I still wasn’t thinking straight when the first tracing officer from Singapore’s Ministry of Health called. She told me I was now officially Case 728. Over about 2 hours on the phone we worked back day by day over where I had been, how I had travelled and where I had sat. The enormity of the tracing task became clear to me. I was just one of 49 new cases that day. What about all the friends, colleagues and strangers I had met before I knew I was sick? For the first time, guilt crept in. Their lives were certainly about to be disrupted by invasive tests and quarantine. What if one fell ill because of me?

Excerpt from Annex to Singapore Ministry of Health Summary of Confirmed Cases for 27 March 2020

Later that evening I checked and there was case 728 on the daily report. No idea how he got the virus—that seemed right. But the age and hospital was wrong. Maybe I misheard – 729 looked more like me, but what was I linked to? I have never been to Dover Court International School. I guessed these were tentative connections and starting reaching out to people I knew to let them know where I was and what had happened. Word got out on social media and soon I had scores of messages wishing me well. As I settled down for my first ever night in hospital it helped immensely to know that I was alone but not forgotten.

It wasn’t a good night’s sleep because the nurses came to check me on a schedule that marched around with the clock: 6pm, 10pm, 2am, 6am. Blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, oxygen saturation. And then the next 12 hours and the 12 hours after that. Times however many patients were in the rooms next to me, some in a very serious condition.

Are the lungs still working to get that vital oxygen into the blood to keep the patient alive? I started googling and found out that is one of the key questions the heroic clinicians who care for us want to know, because although the pathway of the disease is still being understood, it was already recognised that the start of the second week was a crossroads. Lucky patients like me would recover while others went downhill fast, as happened a week later to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

I wouldn’t wish this disease on anyone but the steady stream of celebrities coming out and saying they were positive helped. Friends were starting to find out too—the first I knew who was affected is a fellow entrepreneur-turned-professor called Paris de L’Etraz. The video he posted to reassure students and colleagues inspired me, so as friends were asking what it was like in isolation I decided to show them.

Video Post 28 March 2020

Within hours the video was picked up by Singapore’s national newspaper, the Straits Times. Of the 20,000 viewers who watched my video, hundreds wrote to wish me well. Students I taught years back. Colleagues I worked with decades ago. Strangers who shared their stories and thanked me for allaying their anxiety about what might happen if they too got the virus. When my friend film-maker Tan Siok Siok got in touch I knew I was not alone in isolation. Around the world, Covid-19 was taking lives and destroying economies but it was also beginning to connect us in extraordinary new ways.

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